Investing in infrastructure is key to economic recovery

Infrastructure has a central role to play in economic growth, so it follows that investing in it should be a strategic priority.

Ian Henry, President Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry

However, for too long, Northern Ireland has suffered from significant levels of underinvestment in even the basics like water, transport and sewerage.

Our recovery from the pandemic relies heavily on addressing the scale of underinvestment, prioritising projects and resourcing them appropriately. And while the promises of New Decade New Approach may suggest that the sky is the limit, in reality, budgetary constraints mean there is a need to prioritise. New projects are important and have exciting potential but there is very urgent requirement to invest in what’s already in place and finish what we’ve started. Water and public transport are two such red flag areas.

Making sure that the whole infrastructure ecosystem in Northern Ireland supports how we do business is key. Good quality infrastructure helps open up markets and trade opportunities, reduces costs, increases productivity, improves access to skills and labour and on the whole, makes life much easier for business and individuals.

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At NI Chamber, we believe that investment in infrastructure is central to addressing regional imbalances. City Deals provide the impetus for that focus and making sure that the benefits of infrastructure can be spread across the region. Good quality public infrastructure that covers all parts of Northern Ireland is necessary to improve the movement of people and goods within the region. This includes road and rail, but if businesses outside of Belfast are to reach their full potential, we also need to deliver them full fibre broadband, 5G and access to alternative fuels like hydrogen. Many firms are benefiting from Gas to the West - we need to see more of this kind of vision.

The issue of connectivity is not just a regional one either. All businesses and individuals across society need access to a resilient and secure digital infrastructure. In both urban and rural areas it must be accessible because where cost is prohibitive, those in socially disadvantaged areas are barred from the social and economic advantage it brings.

Energy and sustainability is a priority for businesses and their Net Zero aspirations must be supported by the region’s investment strategy. Green infrastructure investment must therefore be a priority. Practically, this means energy projects such as the North-South interconnector need to be delivered quickly. De-centralised working, which has been significantly advanced in the past 12 months, presents real opportunities to reduce our environmental impact, but also requires investment in high quality digital infrastructure and local public services. At an even more basic level, Northern Ireland has the lowest per capita number of electric vehicle charging points across the UK regions – we can’t accelerate the shift to zero vehicle emissions without this critical infrastructure in place. Our members are ready to invest in electric vehicles but they cannot change their fleets significantly until this issue is resolved.

NI Chamber believes that to address the scale of the issues at play, there is a need for an Infrastructure Commission, an expert body with responsibility for setting priorities and ensuring that projects are delivered. Business participation on that Commission would be important, to provide much needed perspectives on how infrastructure drives economic and business growth. Harnessing the skill of the private sector is not only important in the planning – it has a central role to play in delivery. Our design, construction, manufacturing and engineering sectors are full of talented people, who deliver quality work and innovative ideas. The earlier we get these people involved, the better the outcomes will be.

Achieving all this won’t be easy and progress relies on taking the politics out of infrastructure development. At every stage, transparency in decision making is critical to give the public confidence that the right decisions are being made to benefit communities and the economy.

To date, our infrastructure planning has lacked enough vision and our current budgetary process is part of the issue. Short-termism in budget setting makes it harder to commit to a longer term vision and until multi-annual budgets are in place, this will continue to be a problem.

NI Chamber’s ask is that we deal with the basics and be more ambitious about the future. The challenges of Brexit, Covid-19 and decarbonisation can also be huge opportunities, if we have the vision to invest with the future in mind. The quality of our infrastructure and connectivity can be a real advantage for investors and the time to get started is now.

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