2023 is the year we must turn targets into action

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The President of NI Chamber of Commerce and Industry calls ‘to unlock Northern Ireland’s potential for green growth’

The message from investors is clear; 2023 is the year we must turn targets into action if we are to achieve our 2030 climate change commitments and unlock Northern Ireland’s potential for green growth.

And as we prepare to celebrate 25 years since the signing of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, there is a golden opportunity to attract the investment needed to sustain inclusive economic growth for the next quarter of a century and beyond.

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That’s the conclusion of NI Chamber president Gillian McAuley, who has outlined a series of business priorities in her New Year statement.She explained: “With just seven years left to meet our ambitious 2030 climate change targets, 2023 must be a year of action to drive green growth. Against the backdrop of a challenging fiscal environment, now more than ever we need the private sector to step in and play its part in delivering the low carbon transition and in doing so, creating a new look inclusive, digital and sustainable economy. At NI Chamber, we will be seizing the opportunity by focusing our attention on a series of green policy reforms as part of a ‘23 for 30’ campaign.“From world-leading renewable generation to sustainable transport technology, Northern Ireland has significant potential, having achieved so much already in driving green innovation at home and around the globe. However, if we are to attract the investment and funding needed to reach our true potential, we must be competitive, both as a UK region and on the island of Ireland.“2023 presents a unique opportunity for us to show our value on the world stage as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. There is no question that the signing of the Agreement catalysed immense economic change. It is truly amazing to reflect how far we have come in the 25 years since. The ‘peace dividend’ has seen landscapes transformed, new business sectors thriving and made the arrival of tens of thousands of good jobs possible.

“Northern Ireland is now an attractive place to do business and a must-visit tourist destination. Many export companies are thriving. Major international companies are putting down roots here and creating jobs because of our world-class products, people and skills. We have a global reputation for innovation and are making our mark in cyber security, energy, transport, health and diagnostics, food security and so much more.

“In 2023, we must seize this moment to make more positive strides and secure the investment we need for our coveted low carbon future. It is not the date that is important but rather the opportunity it presents. So while celebrating the occasion is right, it will be the action we take that really matters.”

Highlighting the need for political stability, she explained: “To unlock the full potential this year holds, we need political stability as a pre-requisite.“While most businesses continued to trade well or at least reasonably in 2022, by the end of the summer as many 20 percent were telling us they were simply covering costs as inflation began to spiral. That’s 1 in 5 in survival mode. It is not yet clear what 2023 holds for the world as the protracted war in Ukraine continues. But we do know that this is a time when we need political leadership like never before. Yet we find ourselves, once again with no Executive. At the start of a new calendar year, that should be a source of significant regret for all actors in the process.“The cost of having to endure a stop-start Executive alongside battling the pandemic is almost six years of very little strategic decision making. As a result, we are falling behind significantly in many areas and important time has been lost at great cost. And yes, as is often said, business is ‘just getting on with it’, but there is so much more we could achieve in partnership with a functioning government and legislature.“Political stability underpins confidence to invest and without it, we will inevitably miss some of the opportunities this milestone year will present. To that end, we urge all political leaders to use the first weeks of this year to redouble their efforts to restore a fully functioning Executive. We do not underestimate the political challenges but decisions need to be made and while restoring an Executive won’t solve all the challenges facing businesses, its absence only makes things worse.”Outlining the need for businesses and government to ‘work together’ over the energy crisis, she said: “Rising energy costs have been a challenge for businesses and households across Northern Ireland. Forecasts for 2023 and beyond suggest this will be an ongoing battle that government and business will need to tackle together.“While it is difficult now, this crisis should focus our minds on the prize of the ambitious climate targets which have been set in both the Climate Change Act and the Energy Strategy. Achieving 80% renewable generation by 2030 is key piece in the jigsaw for cleaner, cheaper and more secure sources of energy. It is doable but we need a number of policy reforms to make that happen – from grid connection to planning. As one wind developer regularly tells me, we need projects up and running by 2027 at the latest to hit the 2030 targets. The number one stumbling block is our planning system.

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“Last year we had the statutory planning review, the Northern Ireland Audit Office report and the Public Accounts Committee report looking at various aspects of our planning system. A consistent theme was that the current system was not working for our people, our planet or our economy. 2023 is a year in which that needs to change, not least to enable those sustainable projects that will be critical for the low carbon transition. By introducing reasonable statutory timeframes, reforming the pre-application process and introducing a streamlined mechanism for projects that support our climate change targets, there is so much that could be done to secure investment. Without meaningful reform we risk pushing investors elsewhere.

“This region’s long-term economic prosperity hinges to a large extent on developing a skilled and inclusive workforce that is adequately resourced for a green, digital future. Right now, we have a shortage of people and skills which is negatively impacting productivity and growth.“Recruitment across all sectors and at all levels is a persistent challenge for NI Chamber members. That is evidenced quarter on quarter through our research, yet this region’s economic inactivity rate consistently runs at well above the UK average. That is why NI Chamber will continue to focus on tackling barriers to the workplace in 2023, kicking off the year by exploring how to best support people with disabilities in employment and continuing to press for an ambitious childcare strategy.“When it comes to the skills challenge, so many of the answers lie in improving collaboration and communication. According to PwC, in 2021 Northern Ireland saw its number of green jobs double. To continue on that trajectory we need to accelerate investment to plug the skills gaps in green professional and scientific roles, as well as green trades like retrofitting. As a priority, 2023 must be a year when the funding landscape is clarified. From the Shared Prosperity Fund to numerous other initiatives, businesses need clarity on what funding is available to meet their future skills needs.“We know that 2023 will be a challenging year for the Department of Economy’s budget but given the skills crisis, policymakers must strain every sinew to ensure our further and higher education sectors are adequately resourced to support the vision for an innovative, inclusive and sustainable economy of the future.”Addressing the issue of trade, export and the never-ending ‘technical issues’ surrounding the NI Protocol, Gillian stated: “Our own research shows that businesses in Northern Ireland have a strong appetite for international trade. Despite all the difficulties, businesses here are ready and willing to export. Just over half of NI Chamber members believe the Protocol is supporting business growth and over the last year, more firms have experienced increases in sales to destinations than experienced any fall. Policy makers should be encouraged by that.“However, there are real issues to be resolved for a significant minority of firms. These issues are well documented - we’ve known what they are for some time. What we need now are solutions.“Business understands that the NI Protocol is not just a technical issue; there are deep political concerns to consider too. That’s why we have consistently called on the EU and the UK to ensure that the process of reaching an agreement is an inclusive one, involving all NI stakeholders, including business.“During the early weeks of this New Year, we expect to see more ambition from the EU when it comes to protecting the NI consumer. Likewise, we expect the UK government and all local politicians to recognise that the NI Protocol Bill will not solve the problems. All sides have a responsibility to deal with this with urgency.”Looking ahead, she added: “Globally, 2023 will present considerable businesses challenges – we know that hard times are ahead. But locally, there is a totally unique opportunity to show the eyes of the world that Northern Ireland is a place that is ambitious about its future. It’s about going forward, not backwards from the current position. We must work together and deliver ‘23 for ‘30 to make the ambition of doubling the green economy to £2 billion by 2030 a reality. That requires us all; businesses, employees and political leaders to be confident and ambitious about economic growth, despite the challenges. Together, let’s make it happen.”

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