NI is a place to live, work and invest

While the coronavirus remains far from over, the welcome return to a measure of normality for NI’s business community has created space for firms and political leaders to move on from the immediate crisis response.

Tuesday, 27th July 2021, 6:00 am
Adrian Doran is CBI NI Chair

While the coronavirus remains far from over, the welcome return to a measure of normality for NI’s business community has created space for firms and political leaders to move on from the immediate crisis response.

Instead of the agile thinking and action needed to protect jobs and livelihoods in the short term, there is now greater scope to focus on the future and how we build a sustainable, inclusive and competitive post-pandemic economy that delivers for everyone in NI.

The spectacular success the UK has enjoyed in terms of vaccine uptake has given us a jump on many of our global competitors, but we need to seize that advantage now or lose it forever. For NI, that means straining every sinew to showcase our position as an attractive place to live, work and invest.

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While the pandemic created many new problems for the local business community, it also exacerbated decades-long challenges and barriers to growth. Skills shortages, creaking infrastructure and under investment in innovation have all contributed to weak productivity growth, giving the impression of an economy driving with the handbrake locked tight.

Ask any business here about the biggest red flags to investment and you’ll likely be told about the planning system. If we want to lift that handbrake on growth and give real impetus to recovery, reforming the slow, restrictive and costly planning processes for both major and regionally significant projects is a place to start.

Fortunately, efforts are underway to tackle the problem. We currently have a live legislative review that may facilitate many of the changes needed, but only if significant improvement is sought. That’s a positive step but it isn’t moving close to fast enough, the review was first due in April 2018, and the business community is keen to press on the need for ambition.

Make no mistake, business is determined to play its part in tackling climate change. Yet firms in NI continually find themselves hamstrung by the planning system. If we want modern, low carbon public transport solutions, expanded electric vehicle infrastructure, decarbonised buildings and more sustainable and efficient energy options, we need to make those investments now. Investment won’t wait and, crucially, the climate won’t wait either.

Streamlining planning is how we unlock those investments, and CBI NI has proposed a number of ways to achieve that, along with promoting greater integration between planning and sustainability and decarbonisation targets. What does this mean in practical terms? Well, the target processing time for major applications is 30 weeks yet, on average, the current turnaround is more than double that. The planning process has held up key infrastructure projects like the Northern/South Interconnector. If NI is to play its part on the race to the net zero delays like this are something we can ill afford.

Many in the energy sector believe the planning process is one of the most significant barrier to net zero progress. We need an action plan as soon as this summer that targets process delays, for both major and regionally significant projects. That plan must provide urgent clarity on the pre-application stage. In our view, that means implementing clear processing agreements, with written agreement between applicants and planning authorities on timelines. It also needs to address the role of statutory consultees, whose lagging response times are often cited as a major cause of delay.

We also need a commitment from the Department of Infrastructure to accelerate progress on the Review of Strategic Planning Policy for Renewables announced in April. With public consultation not expected to go live until 2022, there is real danger that ongoing uncertainty about future policy will deter developers and investors just when we need those projects most.

There’s also a question about ambition. We need to conclude and publish the findings from the call for evidence swiftly and use that as a platform to champion a new approach to planning. Introducing statutory timeframes for determining applications would represent a major signal of intent, and one that would really boost confidence among businesses and investors.

In a year where the UK plays host to the COP26 summit, we all have an obligation to view post-pandemic recovery in the context of climate change and decarbonisation. At the CBI, we’ve been clear that we want a truly green recovery that provides new jobs, attracts investment and leaves a lasting decarbonised legacy for future generations across every part of the UK. To achieve that, we need to use every lever at our disposal to unlock that potential.

The world is looking to us for leadership, and a return to business as usual simply won’t cut the mustard. In NI we know that journey begins with reform of the planning process. That’s how we deliver the next generation infrastructure we need, accelerate projects like the York Street Interchange, and secure and unlock the green investment we need to hit our 2030 goal for decarbonisation. The clock is ticking. It’s time to get on with it.

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