Public and private collaboration on infrastructure will drive recovery

WHICH WAY? Creating an infrastructure commission would place a renewed focus on improving value for money on projects including the A5
Kirsty McManus

AS we again grapple with the challenges wrought by an economic lockdown necessary to deal with Covid-19, the emergence of the vaccination programme provides hope that we are also edging closer to the recovery phase of the pandemic.

With thoughts increasingly turning to how that recovery will be supported and maintained, it's clear infrastructure will have a key role to play in terms of boosting Northern Ireland's long run competitiveness, raising standards of living, and societal wellbeing.

It will support the vision for our society and economy as we strive to build back better and emerge from this very difficult period.

Of course, many of these challenges are nothing new but have been magnified by the Covid restrictions.

It was that exacerbation that prompted the Institute of Civil Engineers (ICE) to call for the formation of an independent body for infrastructure to assist the Executive in making strategic decisions, establishing priorities, and improving opportunity and equality for all of us living and working here.

Financial resources will only become more stretched in the years ahead and with the potential for austerity measures to return in a bid to repair public finances, it is clear we need to unlock better value and better social and economic outcomes, and address shared global challenges in a sustainable way.

I was pleased to chair an independent Ministerial Advisory Panel on Infrastructure, set up in the wake of ICE's call.

Tasked by the Minster for Infrastructure with considering how an infrastructure commission might support more effectively the longer-term planning and development of relevant infrastructure here, the panel was made up of independent members from a range of sectors and expertise.

Engagement with more than 100 key stakeholders from construction, banking, utilities, investors, and with infrastructure commissions across the globe, provided a pool of evidence that demonstrated overwhelming support for an Infrastructure Commission in Northern Ireland.

Such a commission would aim to deliver longer-term independent infrastructure strategy formulation and decision making, similar to what is undertaken in other parts of the UK and Republic. Not doing so places us at a competitive disadvantage at a time when the region can ill afford to miss key economic opportunities.

It would place a renewed and relentless focus on what matters in the longer term for society – the wellbeing of our communities, climate change, digital opportunities, competitiveness and inclusion

This would be aided further by improved value for money on infrastructure freeing up resources for other projects in health or education for example.

Working with and reporting to the Executive, the commission would have statutory independence but would be charged with advising on all aspects of infrastructure and looking for synergies and opportunities to exploit across the entire infrastructure portfolio.

All too often, we've seen bottlenecks appear, either through a lack of available funding to allow shovel ready projects to commence or because of a failure to engage in the required collaboration, both internally and with experts in other jurisdictions and across the globe, that could identify solutions to problems before they happen.

Certainly, a new focus on infrastructure can help the Covid recovery, but our thinking must be much longer term as we plan to achieve a greener and more inclusive society in the decades to come.

:: Kirsty McManus is national director at the Institute of Directors (IoD) in Northern Ireland

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