NI business must lead on levelling-up if we are to build a brighter future

“We will never have a greater opportunity to transform our economy and society for the better than we have right now.”

Monday, 31st May 2021, 1:00 pm
Adrian Doran is Chair of CBI Northern Ireland

“We will never have a greater opportunity to transform our economy and society for the better than we have right now.”

These are the words of CBI Director-General Tony Danker, speaking on Monday at the launch of the CBI’s flagship UK economic vision Seize The Moment, a bold blueprint for economic growth and shared prosperity over the coming decade. And he’s right. Our economy has laboured amid unprecedented challenges during the Covid pandemic, but the crisis has also delivered one positive; a generational opportunity to transform the way we live and work for the better.

Seize The Moment has been created with that one clear, unequivocal goal in mind. It identifies the key areas for action – including decarbonisation, globalisation, levelling-up, innovation and inclusivity – as well as the paths to success for each of these areas. It’s a grand ambition, but the prize on offer is enormous: the potential to rebuild the UK as the most competitive, dynamic and future-focused economy in the world.

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Achieving this will not be easy. It will take commitment and courage, innovation and focus. Crucially, it will take partnership. Genuine union between public and private sector, working in tandem towards a prosperous, levelled-up UK.

For too long, this idea of levelling up has remained an enigma. We’ve heard a lot about it, yet it has remained a largely intangible proposition. But for us to truly succeed in rebuilding the economy, levelling-up must finally move from slogan to shared purpose. Lingering pockets of deprivation and left-behind communities would undermine the very principle of the new future we all strive for.

So where do we start? The answer is that we begin by empowering all parts of the UK to help themselves. A one-size-fits-all approach to local prosperity handed down by central government is doomed to fail. UK politicians have a big role to play, of course – forging a business-friendly regulatory framework which rewards innovation and investment, and delivering modern, reliable infrastructure are crucial – but it’s local knowhow which has the power to be truly transformational.

In Northern Ireland, the Executive and local business leaders know best the challenges we need to overcome, and the strengths we have to build on. We understand the issues we face with areas of low productivity, skills shortages, graduate retention or infrastructure shortcomings

But we know too of our success stories. Northern Ireland boasts remarkable strength in sectors like agri-food, advanced manufacturing, ICT and fintech, life sciences, and capitalising upon this excellence can accelerate the creation of a unique regional identity and competitive proposition. The Department of the Economy’s recently launched “10x Economy” strategy for Northern Ireland is an ambitious decade long vision for our economy that focuses on key areas like innovation, skills, building a greener economy and harnessing the power of clusters where we have competitive advantage. All of this aligns very closely with the CBI’s own vision for our economy. The challenge now will be converting good words into concrete actions.

The advantages of promoting regional strategies like this are obvious. By diverging from the cookie cutter approaches of the past, to instead celebrating regional differences, we can harness them in a way which enables each place to forge its own path to global competitiveness.

CBI Northern Ireland has a central role to play in all this, by deploying its convening power – across our universities, colleges, research and technology organisations, for example – to assemble business-led coalitions, developing knowledge and sharing best practice on how to scale-up these economic clusters, building distinctive regional comparative advantage to bring the levelling-up agenda to life.

And what does that look like? It looks like schools and universities working side by side with businesses to match skills to opportunities, reskilling workers for future industries, and delivering an end to productivity disparities and income inequalities. It looks like business leaders taking bold decisions on innovation and investment, and employers recruiting diverse talent from all corners of society. And it looks like businesses operating with the confidence and security to take far-sighted decisions around new technology and net-zero ambitions. In other words, it looks like an open door to a world of new opportunities.

I know companies in Northern Ireland are ready to embrace all of this. The past year has shown us just how much businesses are capable of stepping up, as firms have looked beyond their own travails to consider their role in wider society. Companies have gone to great lengths to support their workers like never before and play an active role in helping their communities.

Of all the lessons we have learned during the pandemic, this is one to treasure. Business at its best is a powerful force for good. And now, as we look beyond COVID, business must take its place at the vanguard as we plot a trajectory towards a future of increased opportunity and shared prosperity. There is an unprecedented prize on offer, if only we are bold enough to seize the moment.

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