Business community offers 'alternative solutions' to ease logjam

In the absence of a functioning Executive at Stormont, a business consortium is suggesting a number of 'alternative solutions' to break the logjam

A TWELVE-strong consortium of business bodies in the north has formulated what it believes is a practical set of solutions to ensure decisions crucial to the prosperity of the region can continue to be taken while the political logjam remains.

They have written to Secretary of State Karen Bradley urging her to consider implementing special legislative measures that restore stable governance by temporarily empowering senior civil servants to take crucial day-to-day decisions.

And they believe it will at least temporarily untangle what they see as the "significant and increasingly harmful" lack of governance within Northern Ireland.

The bodies weighing in behind the latest initiative are the CBI, Construction Employers Federation, NI Chamber of Commerce, Quarry Products Association, Manufacturing NI, Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association, Retail NI, NI Retail Consortium, Newry Chamber of Commerce, Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, Hospitality Ulster and the Freight Transport Association.

For more than a year, businesses and individuals have been engaging with Executive departments to request policy direction, make important tendering and procurement decisions, and decide regionally significant planning applications.

But the recent Belfast High Court judgment on the Arc21 Incinerator has called into question the ability of the civil service to continue to exercise these duties, not just on planning and infrastructure decisions, but across a range of policy areas.

Other key projects put at risk by this judgment include the North-South Interconnector, A5 upgrade, Belfast Power Station, and the £150 million ultra-fast broadband project – each seen as strategically importance to business in the north.

The consortium says that, while acknowledging that the Department for Infrastructure has appealed the High Court's decision it still believes the merits of two potential legislative solutions should also be considered in the meantime.

The first is to temporarily amend ‘The Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999' to allow permanent secretaries to make decisions in the absence of a minister until devolution is restored - an option which could be undertaken at the same time as re-establishing NI Assembly Statutory Committees to provide additional scrutiny and transparency.

And its second proposal is to focus on infrastructure planning decisions only and extend the existing decision-making powers of the Planning Appeals Commission to incorporate ‘regionally significant' planning applications.

Adrian Doran, chair of the CBI NI infrastructure forum, said: "Without a political resolution in sight, it's only right we request the Secretary of State to explore all alternative options, because this policy paralysis is not acceptable.We can't be left in a decision-making limbo indefinitely."

And NI Chamber chief executive Ann McGregor added: "It's becoming more and more difficult to see how our economy can prosper without having the necessary functions of government in place. Our credibility as a place in which to do business is suffering intolerably."

What the business leaders said . . . .

:: Adrian Doran, chair of the CBI NI infrastructure forum - The business community's overwhelming priority remains the return of an inclusive devolved government. But without a political resolution in sight, it is only right that we request that the Secretary of State explore all alternative options. Policy paralysis is not acceptable, and we must all look for ways to remove the current handbrake on local economic and social progress. Both businesses and individuals deserve to have access to the basic everyday governance that is offered in all other regions. Last week's incinerator decision exposed the fragility of current decision-making arrangements in the absence of Ministers. The longer this uncertainty presides over local infrastructure decisions, the greater the risk to jobs and investment. Northern Ireland cannot be left in a decision-making limbo indefinitely.

:: Ann McGregor, chief executive of the NI Chamber of Commerce and Industry - It is becoming more and more difficult to see how the Northern Ireland economy can develop and businesses prosper without having the necessary functions of government in place. There is no sign of Stormont being restored, there are no Ministers in place to take vital decisions on critical issues and it now appears that no policy decisions of significance can be taken legally by senior civil servants. Northern Ireland's credibility as a place in which to do business is suffering intolerably because of the political impasse. We need the return of a functioning local executive and a Ministerial team focused on helping the Northern Ireland economy to flourish. In the meantime, the proposals put forward by business groups today outline potential solutions that should be considered - too much time is being wasted and time is of the essence.

:: John Armstrong, managing director of the Construction Employer's Federation - As the Federation has already said on the public record, there is a significant and increasingly harmful lack of governance within Northern Ireland. We have long said that the Secretary of State must now bring clarity, particularly given the construction industry's critical role in delivering jobs, economic development and growth and last week's verdict. Decisions need to be prioritised and a clear and accountable way of taking these decisions needs to be established. Our preference is, of course, the establishment of a Northern Ireland Executive. However, failing that, we need to move to a position where the functions of government can be exercised in a way that any other part of these islands would expect as a matter of course.

:: Brian Irwin, chair of the Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association - The continued lack of certainty around decision-making in Northern Ireland is not sustainable and will in all likelihood result in the loss of jobs if it is to continue. In the absence of a local Assembly or even efforts to resume talks, our members and the wider business community need certainty to allow some key strategic infrastructure decisions to be made. The time is now for some leadership and creative thinking from the Secretary of State to move this issue forward, even if it means introducing some temporary measures like the ones we have suggested today.

:: Aodhán Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium - While a sitting Assembly is our preferred option, our industry needs mission critical decisions taken now on issues such as business rates and the Apprenticeship Levy. The current stalemate is no longer an option and further stagnation only serves to make it harder to do business in NI.

:: Glyn Roberts, Retail NI chief executive - The current political limbo is nothing less than a total disgrace and we need to see new leadership, an end to the blame game and new talks beginning immediately. Having no Government for so long is making Northern Ireland an international laughing stock and will impact on foreign direct investment. Devolution should always be the first choice for Northern Ireland. Failing that we need a plan B with Ministers in place making the vital decisions to move our economy forward.

:: Seamus Leheny, NI policy manager, Freight Transport Association - A functioning and effective local government is something we as an industry naturally want. However, because of the current stalemate at Stormont, what we hope will be a for a short time period, we would like to see key decision making around Infrastructure projects to be made by appropriate senior civil servants. This will ensure projects that have been years in planning and approvals with allocated funding can proceed without further delay.

:: Colin Neill, chief executive, Hospitality Ulster - We value our devolved government structures and the Assembly. However, we simply cannot continue with the current situation. Our members feel the real and tangible costs of no government, which leaves us to operate with outdated legislation as our competitors modernise to meet the demands of a fast-changing market. As hard working, law abiding, tax pay businesses, our members deserve the basic right to have a working government in place.

:: Mary Meehan, chief executive of Newry Chamber of Commerce - The void of political leadership is having a serious impact on the local economy and it appears that key decisions on critical issues cannot be taken by senior civil servants. We need to restore the local executive as a matter of urgency especially given the unprecedented times we are in with Brexit and the gap in representing Northern Ireland at the negotiating table.

:: Sinead McLaughlin, chief executive, Londonderry Chamber of Commerce - In the interest of supporting and developing the economy in Northern Ireland it is important that the current policy paralysis is overcome. The best way to make progress is for politicians to return to their work as our elected legislators. However in the absence of government we must find innovative solutions to ensure we do not further damage our economy by preventing major projects from progressing.

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