Northern Ireland ‘undersold' in first round of City Deal funding
Northern Ireland was “undersold” in the first round of funding associated with the UK Government’s City Deals initiative, an MP has claimed.
A £1 billion Belfast Region City Deal was signed in 2021, covering six local authorities, including the capital.
It was designed to offer funding and powers to local and regional bodies to target key industries in these areas based on their potential for growth, such as financial services and digital tech.
However, DUP MP Gregory Campbell said Northern Ireland was “undersold” compared with other regions of the UK.
He told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that Scotland got £18 million more than anticipated and Wales received £37 million more than expected, but Northern Ireland was given £1.7 million less than anticipated.
“We were the only region of the UK that was undersold,” he said, and demanded that efforts are made to avoid this happening in the second round which, he noted, opens in the next few weeks.
His comments came during the committee’s fourth oral evidence session of its Investment In Northern Ireland inquiry.
Damien Martin, programme manager, Belfast Region City Deal, earlier told MPs it is “still very early days” in relation to funds, but they hope to secure a “fair share around research and development”.
He complained of a lack of clarity around the process.
“There is still that sense in Northern Ireland that we’re not quite sure how it’s going to work … we have had more detail recently around levelling up and shared prosperity,” he said.
He added there is a feeling that the first round of applications had been challenging in terms of the timescale, adding that they hope to get clarity.
“What we’re trying to do with these funds and with the City Deal is to have alignment, and the hardest thing in getting alignment is when you don’t really understand the rules,” he said.
“So, it’s much, much harder for us to bring partners together, to bring universities, colleges, other councils together, because often the way we see it is that those collective bids are likely to be much more effective than individual partner bids, but that’s difficult to do without clarity.”
Responding to Mr Campbell, Mr Martin said the first round had been considered very challenging in terms of preparing bids.
“I know that there are concerns that the next round is coming up very soon and there still isn’t full understanding of how it is going to be administered and how it is going to work in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“So that is a concern that potentially we could have that same issue again.”
He said the lead UK Government departments have committed to engage and try to explain how the funds will work in more detail.
Belfast Lord Mayor Kate Nicholl emphasised to MPs the importance of developing skills.
She said it is hoped the City Deal will tackle lower levels of productivity, a lack of investment, and high levels of economic inactivity and skills, adding that the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the challenges.
“We’re very keen that all levels of government work together to help businesses revitalise our high street,” she said.
Ms Nicholl told MPs that Northern Ireland faces the additional challenge of the “brain drain”, where young people leave and do not return.
She said the City Deal’s focus on innovation and digital skills offers potential jobs for young people, describing the investment as “really key”.