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Infrastructure investment must continue - even without an Executive

Retail NI has long championed the need for a new high-speed rail service between Dublin and Belfast
Glyn Roberts

WITH the Assembly and an Executive still seemingly in a cul-de-sac, the continuing impasse mustn't stop vital investment in key infrastructure projects - and establishing City Deals for Belfast and Derry and creating more enterprise zones should now be taken forward by the Secretary of State.

All are included in the DUP and Conservative deal, so there is no reason why we shouldn't press ahead with schemes which are so critical to the future success of our economy.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK which does not have a City Deal. As an early priority, we want to see city deals for both Belfast and Derry, giving them more powers to grow their local economies and regenerate their city centres.

While the focus is rightly on restoring devolution, we shouldn't forget our two major cities and their vital role as key economic drivers for Northern Ireland.

We could also include, as part of a City Deal, new enterprise zones in Belfast and Derry City centres, similar to the successful Cardiff Central model.

Cardiff has undergone an impressive physical transformation and spectacular economic growth over the last 10 years to become one of the fastest growing economies in the UK and has the highest growth in private sector employment over the last 10 years of all UK core cities.

Cardiff city centre's enterprise zone has also generated huge footfall for its retail and hospitality sectors and has had a very significant impact in reducing dereliction and shop vacancies. Why not include a similar enterprise zone in the new Sirocco redevelopment?

While the York Street Interchange, A5, A6 and the new transport hubs in Belfast and Derry are all vital for the future of our local economy, we would also add to the list the regeneration of the infrastructure of our rural and market towns, particularly west of the Bann.

Retail NI has also long championed the need for a new high-speed rail service between Dublin and Belfast of around one hour twenty minutes. This is a big and bold ask, which would require funding and co-ordination of governments in London, Dublin, Belfast and likely the European Union too.

We should not forget that 70 per cent of Northern Ireland's tourists come via the Republic and we miss out on a considerable number of high-end retail tourists who shop in Dublin and don't come north.

Having a fast and frequent rail service between Dublin and Belfast is a game-changer for our whole economy in Northern Ireland, connecting the island's two largest cities and benefitting every sector of industry.

As we face the uncharted territory of Brexit and the prospect of some hardening of the border, this idea could address the challenge and ensure better connectivity between both parts of the island.

This might all take 10 years, but there is no reason a scoping study could not be immediately commissioned as to the cost and time scale of such a project.

Ultimately having no budget, no Programme for Government and indeed no government at Stormont creates political instability which is bad for business confidence and the economy as a whole.

All political parties should redouble their efforts over the comings days and weeks to finally agree a restoration of the Assembly and Executive.

:: Glyn Roberts is chief executive of Retail NI


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