The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes to speak. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.
I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to establish a task force to address urgently the economic development of the west, including the areas covered by Fermanagh, Omagh, Strabane, Dungannon and Cookstown District Councils; and further calls upon the Minister to bring forward a report of the task force by 31st March 2008, to include specific recommendations to tackle neglect, increase investment and maximise opportunities for North-South funding aimed at improving infrastructure and achieving higher levels of employment and employability in these areas.
The motion addresses the imbalances that exist between the east and the west in infrastructure, economic development and job opportunities. People everywhere expect that we in Northern Ireland are on a road to a new beginning. The principles of inclusion and equality are embedded in Government policy, and the motion is about making that policy a reality.
It is time for the west to have a new start. I will not use the debate to list endless complaints about past neglect in the area, nor will I propose that resources should be diverted from deprived areas elsewhere in Northern Ireland. I will make the case to increase equality of opportunity and to redress the historic underfunding of the west. The appointment of members to the task force is the responsibility of the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, as is the task of overseeing the implementation of proposals.
Despite the west’s not being on a level playing field, there is enormous potential in the area. We have a highly skilled workforce, and our young people are well educated. There are successful companies, some of which are household names in Northern Ireland and beyond, and we have excellent natural resources and assets that attract thousands of visitors every year. The Erne-Shannon link is an example of the benefits that can be gained for border areas through the development of North/South links.
Nevertheless, Members must recognise that the west suffers as a result of the legacy of neglect and that there are serious disadvantages and past wrongs that we have a responsibility to put right. No railways serve the west; they were all closed down 40 years ago. There is no gas supply, with the result that businesses have to depend entirely on electricity. Access to broadband is limited, and the telecommunications network that serves the area is second rate. When it was being built more than 40 years ago, the motorway that was supposed to replace the railways stopped at Dungannon. There was a promise that it would be extended to Enniskillen. However, it has never been extended. That failure to put in place an important road link started a trend that continues. As a result of a lack of investment in new roads, Enniskillen suffers chronic and serious traffic congestion.
Plans for bypasses — such as the southern bypass and the Cherrymount link, which are necessary to divert through-traffic away from the town centre — have been with the roads authorities for more than 20 years. There is still no sign of work starting. The recently completed Omagh bypass was fought for for over 30 years. The failure of Government to provide funding for roads is an ongoing source of frustration and annoyance in Fermanagh and Tyrone. Members must not forget that public transport is poor and that most people have no choice but to rely on their cars.
Unemployment statistics that cover many years have documented the lack of both investment and job opportunities in the west. In March 2007 the Labour Market Bulletin from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment stated that districts in the west of Northern Ireland showed the highest concentration of long-term claimants, with the eastern region showing to be lower.
Without investment and infrastructure, local services are being squeezed, and the people of Strabane, Omagh, Enniskillen and Dungannon know that too well. Even now, every proposed reform, be it the Water Service or in relation to the Review of Public Administration (RPA), is about centralisation. With such centralisation, the east will gain and the west will lose.
The Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) produced a strategy for growth in 2007, which was based on the development of what it called signature projects. Those are meant to act as magnets to pull in tourists, help the economy and create jobs. However NITB excluded Fermanagh and Tyrone from the list.
Those are only some examples of the very unfair policies being implemented by Government and that serve the west very badly. It is time to put an end to that and begin to remove the historical disadvantage that pertains to the west.
To begin that turnaround, I call for the establishment of a task force. However, it will be a task force with a difference — its recommendations will be acted upon and will be grounded in reality. It is time for a task force to examine in detail the measures that are required to level the playing field.
Each of the five councils in the west, together with partners in the business and community sectors, has been striving to increase investment and tackle difficulties such as factory closures and job losses in the textile industry. The five councils agreed and launched a western economic strategy in 2006 to encourage enterprise and to lobby for, among other things, better roads. An Assembly-appointed task force will give focus and better cohesion to that work.
There are some absolute priorities, such as roads, the decentralisation of Civil Service jobs, inward investment and healthcare, which are all high on the agenda of the people of the west.
We need a major transport plan that will take forward speedily the expansion of the two corridors already identified in the development plans of the Northern and Southern Governments. Those are the North/west corridor, linking Derry to Dublin through Omagh, Strabane and Monaghan, and the east/west corridor linking Sligo to Belfast through Enniskillen and Dungannon. We know that the Irish Government has pledged £700 million for such projects, which are in the interest of regional, balanced development, and which will draw down European Union support.
I want to make it clear that I am calling for a time-limited task force, as stated in the motion, to bring forward recommendations. It is a reasoned and specific call for action. The amendment, on the other hand, calls for no specific action that would be directed immediately towards solving our obvious problems, which will be highlighted by other Members today.
I am calling for a task force, because any serious attempts to develop the west will require the active participation of many bodies, including Departments. It is simply not good enough for the development needs of the west to be taken into account through a general motion. The west needs more than discussions. Due to many years of neglect, neither I nor anyone in the west believe that we will get anywhere by taking things into account.
The west cannot continue to be the last item on the agenda of this or any other Assembly. It must not be allowed to slip between the cracks. We need a task force that sets out clearly for the Assembly’s consideration what needs to be done, how much it will cost and how it will be done.
As we know, the whole island suffers from regional imbalance. Through North/South co-operation, we have the means to take steps to tackle that, develop new plans and spread benefits to the west.
There is no mention of such co-operation in the amendment. This is not simply about the development of two economic corridors. The rural population in the area is dispersed, and many of its roads are third class. Roads Service must step up and make a substantial investment in the repair of those roads.
The main factors for business are access to markets and labour. It would be a great pity if, on a motion asking simply for equality of opportunity and fair play, there was a reversion to the sterile politics of the past, with unionist Members combining to defeat a proposal for specific recommendations. I hope that that will not happen. Some people would be surprised if it happened; most would not, and they would not be impressed if it came to pass. I say to the Assembly that if it does, this matter will come back here. Now is the time for a new start in the west.
I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all after the first “to” and insert
“investigate with relevant Ministers the economic development of the west, including the areas covered by Fermanagh, Omagh, Strabane, Cookstown, and Dungannon District Councils; and to ensure that these matters, including infrastructure, employment and employability, are taken into account in the discussions leading to the Programme for Government, Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review.”
Mr Gallagher used a significant phrase: he said that “the sterile politics of the past” would be insufficient. Had he taken that sentiment on board before he drafted his motion, we might have had consensus on something. However, I hope that, as a result of the amendment and the debate, we will be able to achieve that, because both of us are saying the same thing in different ways. Mr Gallagher is as keen as I am to see the west develop. I look forward to Mr Gallagher’s withdrawing his motion and throwing his weight behind the amendment. That would send a powerful message to the Assembly, which he asks to move away from the sterile politics of the past, to Northern Ireland and further afield.
I congratulate the authors of the Western Economic Strategy Team’s ‘Strategy and Action Plan 2006-2008’. It is a concise and significant document that will be relied upon greatly in the future as we seek to improve the economy of the west. The plan aims to promote greater co-ordination and cohesion among economic support agencies in the western areas and to position that region as a place in which to do business.
For too long there has been a definite line between east and west in Northern Ireland. As I have said previously, with respect to economic development it is almost as though there are two Northern Irelands. If we are to bring the west onto a par with the rest of Northern Ireland, there must be a change in mindset.
The Western Economic Strategy Team has laid out structured suggestions for economic development that would greatly enhance the lives of residents and constituents in the area. I recommend that all Members read that document. The strategy embraces the district council areas of Dungannon and South Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cookstown, Omagh and Strabane. The various Government agencies and Departments are left in no doubt as to what is necessary for proper consideration of those areas’ needs and feelings. We do not want to be thrown leftovers from other projects, but rather to be integrated into every strategy, including those for employment, development, tourism and education.
Undoubtedly, the west now fares better than it has done previously. The upgrading of the A4 between Dungannon and the Ballygawley roundabout, due to commence next spring, will add significantly to the road infrastructure of the Province and of the west. There is still a lot more to be done. The continued upgrading of County Fermanagh’s roads is important and must be examined sooner rather than later. A distributor road is necessary in Dungannon to deal with congestion in the town centre and to carry that traffic which does not seek to come to Dungannon but to go elsewhere. There has to be a distributor road to take away the traffic that is causing congestion but bringing very little else to Dungannon.
The west is blessed with exciting tourism opportunities, but funding to promote them to full capacity is often lacking. Similarly, residents of the west face difficulty in accessing employment, and that is coupled with continuous economic strain in rural communities. The scales of funding must be fairly balanced to ensure that the area flourishes and becomes steadily stronger, instead of being allowed to stagnate. It is vital that every possible avenue to highlight the need for immediate and dramatic change is explored, and that the aim of improving our respective areas is fully supported. On examination, the current picture can sometimes seem grim. A positive change is overdue and will be welcomed. The sooner that happens, the better.
The total population in the west is some 224,000, which represents around 13% or 14% of Northern Ireland’s population. By 2017, if trends continue, that figure will increase by around 10%. I doubt that other areas are growing at that rate. The west also has an above-average number of under-16-year-olds in employment with no formal qualifications, particularly in the Strabane District Council area. Such issues need to be tackled head on.
A total of 12,800 enterprises are located in the western region, of which a staggering 99% are small businesses employing less than 50 people. There are a mere five large enterprises employing more than 250 people, and all of those are located in or around the Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council area. I ask the Minister of Enterprise Trade and Investment to look at those figures, which are significant and worthy of consideration.
Gaping differences are noted in the Strabane and Cookstown areas, which respectively boast just 10 and 15 companies that employ more than 50 people. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment must give consideration to that fact when job creation is promoted in Northern Ireland in order to ensure that the west will not be forgotten, but will be given its proper place among the other regions.
There have been areas of significant growth in both the manufacturing and construction sectors. However, there is ongoing below-average employment in education across the region, perhaps with the exception of Omagh, and below-average employment in the public administration sector. I agree with Mr Gallagher’s comments on that important point.
The average weekly earnings across the region are below the Northern Ireland average, with employees in Cookstown the worst affected. In 2004-05, 16% of redundancies in Northern Ireland were in the west — a jump of 7% on the previous year. That translates as 782 job losses in two years, of which 60% were in Strabane. Those are significant figures and I am delighted to see the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in the Chamber. The Minister will be responding to the debate, and I know that he will take seriously Members’ concerns that something must be done. I look forward to the future and his heading up of the Department, because it is true to say that his roots are in the west too, so he has an interest in the area not falling behind, and I have no doubt that he will not allow that to happen.
Statistics show that the combined local government districts of the west fall within the 40% most deprived in Northern Ireland. Shockingly, Strabane ranks as not only the most deprived area in the subregion, but in Northern Ireland as a whole. That is extremely worrying given that the definition of the word “deprivation” includes housing, general facilities, fuel, and environmental, educational, working and social conditions. Therefore, it can be argued that the affected areas, particularly Strabane, lack all of those elements, which are nothing more than basic requirements that should be expected in today’s society. The day-to-day living that most of us take for granted has been denied to most of those who are affected by that situation.
Although Strabane has earned the unpleasant reputation as the most deprived district in the Province, its neighbours do not fall far behind. Omagh, Cookstown and Dungannon have been designated among the six most disadvantaged council areas in Northern Ireland — a fact of which the Department must take cognisance, and to which it must give proper consideration.
Strabane, Dungannon and Omagh are well below the Northern Ireland average for economic activity. Why should that be? The number of people who claim unemployment benefit in western areas is higher than the Northern Ireland average. That is not acceptable. There must be the same opportunities for all.
The west must not be an afterthought: the place that is thought about only when there are leftovers to be given out. I do not subscribe to that at all. I trust that the House and the Department do not either. That is why I have moved an amendment that focuses directly on the issues and will take politics out of the equation altogether. Members are not here to play politics with such matters. There will be plenty of opportunity to do that with less important issues. In my estimation, to do that in the current situation would be unforgivable. I strongly commend the amendment to the House. I ask the House to unite behind it and send out a powerful message that, in future, the west must be treated like the rest and also that it demands the best.
I congratulate Mr Gallagher for moving this important motion, which seeks to deal with the infrastructural neglect of the west over the past years. I want to declare an interest as a member of Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council. I also congratulate the Minister for his presence at the debate to listen to the calls from the west. I am aware that he has roots there and certainly has a particular interest in the area.
I ask Members to support the motion rather than the amendment — not on any party-political grounds — simply because Ministers can already come together to discuss and deal with such issues as the neglect of the west and how to improve its infrastructure and environment for job creation: indeed, Members expect them to do so.
However, as Mr Gallagher’s motion says, what is needed is a task force for the west that is charged with compiling a time-limited report on the progress that is being made and which will set the pace for the way forward. The western economic strategy team (WEST) has put together its plan. I congratulate the councils in the west for banding together to start to put together a programme to tackle the area’s needs. A similar approach worked in the Derry area when demands were made for infrastructure and support for the second city, the benefits of which can be seen. There has been a decentralisation of Departments into Derry. However, there has not been any decentralisation of Departments into western council areas, with the possible exception of Omagh, to which some Departments have moved from other council areas.
A task force for the west must be a focus for the new Administration. It must start to build a future for the west by identifying the area’s needs and developing a programme to deal with them. A task force and its report are important factors in that. I call upon Invest NI to adopt a new approach to the west. There has been no drive to bring industry into the west. Historically, any industry in the west has come about through the entrepreneurial skills of local people. Those industries have been successful; indeed, they have become world leaders. For example, 80% of quarry machinery for the rest of the world is manufactured in the west, particularly in the Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council area. That demonstrates how local people have recognised the neglect, lack of jobs and infrastructure in the area and have banded together and brought forward their own programme to develop world-leading industry. Those entrepreneurial skills must be developed and supported. Although there are many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the area, those businesses have developed as far as they can.
A drive is required to turn those businesses into exporters and to put them into the international market. Invest NI can perform a major task by encouraging those businesses to develop in such a way that we do not simply end up with good family businesses, albeit with an increase in jobs, but in a way that develops those businesses as exporters.
I am interested to hear the Member talk about people banding together in the west of the Province. Will he consider all the manufacturing companies that have come together under the industrial derating campaign? Those companies would tell the Member that they hope that he and his party will support all possible measures to keep industrial rates down as a means of securing the future of those companies in the west of the Province that currently export goods.
That is a discussion for another motion. My party’s support for derating has certainly been forthcoming. This matter is not framed by the west whingeing about what it has not got, but is about the development of skills to show what it can achieve in the future. The motion is concerned with the development of the west and how it can foster the necessary skills to achieve that aim.
At a conference in Dungannon last week, as part of the Flight of the Earls festival, we were told that a programme is urgently needed to address the skills issue if we want to reap the benefits in, perhaps, eight to 10 years time. We need a programme that will ensure that the skills exist to develop future industry. We must start to shift the manufacturing base into an export role, and we must start to develop the current InterTradeIreland programme, expanding it to ensure that we have a better future.
Having lived west of the Bann for several years, I have considerable sympathy with the motives behind Mr Gallagher’s motion. We are told that more people are in work and that fewer are unemployed, but economic inactivity remains high. Historically, earnings in the west are below the Northern Ireland average and 16% of all recent redundancies have occurred in the west. Those are quite alarming figures.
I was interested to be reminded of the strong manufacturing base that exists in the west. In Cookstown, 23% of the workforce is involved in manufacturing. In Dungannon, that figure is 29%; in Fermanagh, it is 18%; in Omagh, it is 12%; and in Strabane, it is 29%.
We have taken an ambiguous attitude towards derating in the manufacturing industry, as illustrated in the Assembly debate in June 2006, of which Members have a record, and in the motion that I proposed in June this year. I sincerely hope that the Assembly will decide to support our manufacturers in a practical way on industrial rates. That seems to me, perhaps, to be more relevant to manufacturing than chasing the Varney Review on the reduction of corporation tax.
I recognise that a study has been undertaken by the western economic strategy team. That has already been referred to, and the report, covering the period 2006-08, is very good. Other initiatives are ongoing. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in Northern Ireland is 3·7%, which is the lowest rate on record. That is lower than the rate for the UK, which is 5·4%, and it is the lowest of all the UK regions. Despite that, we have clear evidence that the UK regional policy is not working. Two days ago, I received a copy of ‘Institute of Directors Northern Ireland News’, from which I quote Professor Mike Smyth of the University of Ulster on policy fault lines:
“The ongoing discussions with HM Treasury (the Varney Review) have highlighted a number of serious fault lines in government policy.
For me, the biggest fault line is the inescapable conclusion that UK regional policy is not working. Real economic convergence among the UK’s lagging regions (Northern Ireland, Wales, the North of England, Scotland, etc) is not happening. In fact, GVA per head over the past 15 years has been diverging from the UK average in most regions. Surprise, surprise, the only regions not diverging from average living standards are London, the South East and the South West.”
I am concerned for the future of the economy for all of us. The economy will continue to be a difficult issue with very low growth — as low as 1%, some have predicted. There are bound to be considerable pressures on our economy, and the much-publicised economic package has failed to materialise. However, we must continue to tackle the problems of deprivation and social exclusion in our most disadvantaged areas, and that certainly includes west of the Bann.
However, it is essential that DETI continues to improve jobs and opportunities for employment throughout Northern Ireland. More needs to be done. The best task force that we could muster at this time would comprise our Ministers. For that reason, I support the amendment.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank you for allowing me to speak on this important motion. Perhaps I have some authority to speak on this, having spent the past 21 years of my life living in the west — without giving my age away, I spent the first 30 years living in the east.
I cannot recommend the amendment because it has been proposed for two reasons only: to remove the words “task force”, and to remove the words “North-South”. I agree with Lord Morrow that he and Tommy Gallagher are singing from the same hymn sheet. However, the word “investigate” is not strong enough. We need something solid here, and a task force seems right to me. Therefore, I support the motion but cannot accept the amendment.
I commend Mr Gallagher for two reasons: first, for proposing this important motion for debate; and, secondly, for including the whole of the west in the motion. Lord Morrow said that some 200,000 people live in the west. Last time I looked west of the Bann, 404,000 people were living there. That is a significant number.
It is good that Mr Gallagher included the two large counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh. When I refer to the west, I include Derry, but I will focus a little on the two counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh. Do not forget that Tyrone is the largest and most deprived of the six counties. The establishment of an economic development task force for our region would help to bring the two counties, Tyrone and Fermanagh, together, and they would both benefit from each other. Such a task force would promote economic development on all fronts in both counties and would, therefore, greatly benefit everyone across the North.
People often ask what we in the west have to offer. Tourism has been mentioned already, and it remains, and will remain, a major contributor to the economy in Northern Ireland — I am thinking of the Sperrins, the Fermanagh lakes and, of course, our wonderful Ulster American Folk Park. Economic development is measured in terms of jobs, members and income. It results in improvements in human development, education, health, choice and environmental sustainability.
I have to say — coming not so much from Belfast, but even further east than that — that it is quite obvious to me that many things are Belfast-centred. It has been said in the past that Northern Ireland stops at Dungannon, and Mr Gallagher mentioned that the motorway to Dungannon, which was built 40 years ago, has not been extended beyond Dungannon as promised. Some people would be certain that Northern Ireland stops at Lisburn. Everything is centred on the periphery, which is a contradiction.
The west has been neglected for far too long, and it is time that that was put right. There is a lack of public-sector jobs in the west. It has been noted by a former Minister and many others that many people in Omagh work in the Civil Service but have to travel to Belfast to do their jobs. There is no reason for not moving those jobs to the west. Strabane has lost hundreds of jobs in recent years, and no agencies have moved in to replace that lost employment. It is now official that many people are travelling out of — and even moving out of — the counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone because of that. Indeed, there is a brain drain in the south-west.
There are no universities in the west except, of course, in the Maiden City, although the development of local colleges is very important, and I am thankful for the one in Omagh.
Members know my views on the plans for healthcare provision. They do not cater for everyone in Tyrone and Fermanagh, and there has been the unacceptable closure of three acute hospitals that served the people of Tyrone: three, not one. The Mid-Ulster Hospital in Magherafelt looks after the people in Cookstown. We must have adequate, modern healthcare facilities to cover all medical eventualities in both counties, and not just for our people — we need them for tourists as well.
Roads and railways have been mentioned. There is no motorway network in the west at all. We do not even have a dual carriageway — Mr Gallagher can correct me, if there is one in Fermanagh — except for one small one in Tyrone, just outside Cookstown. The roads are shocking, and there is no railway network. Multinational companies must be encouraged to come to the west. An economic development task force would ensure that Tyrone and Fermanagh attracted important developments in line with what is happening in other areas of Northern Ireland.
This is a new era for Northern Ireland, and we all want a modern Northern Ireland in a modern Europe. That means investing in, developing and modernising all of Northern Ireland, and that includes the west. I support the motion.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss economic development matters today. I wish that we had many more such opportunities, because — and I think that we all accept this — the economy is the biggest challenge facing the new Executive. We must ensure that nowhere — and nobody —is left out of what we hope are going to be years of prosperity ahead. We also want to ensure that every social class and every part of Northern Ireland benefit from a boost in the economy. That is a huge challenge for all of us, and that is why I support the amendment. It is much better to investigate rather than create a task force that would mark out the west as the sick man of Northern Ireland. That would not be good for the west, especially when it is not an entirely accurate perception.
I read with interest the action plan developed by the western economic strategy team (WEST) and noted that it has found that research has identified the region to be characterised by, among other things: an entrepreneurial spirit; regional diversity; a spirit of collaboration; a strong economic mix; a sustainable rural economy; and a high level of skills. Those are some positive points for the west.
We all accept that there are problems. All Members who have spoken in the debate mentioned accessibility, and there is no doubt that it is a problem. Investment in the roads infrastructure is sound investment and gives good value. We have only to look at our neighbours in the South to see the economic benefits that it can bring.
Economic inactivity is also a problem. It is worse than the Northern Ireland average. Coming from the Ards Borough Council area, where 29,000 people are economically inactive at present — the fourth highest figure in Northern Ireland — I have considerable sympathy with the west. I note that in the past there has been a lack of available industrial land, particularly in the Strabane District Council area.
However, if we create a task force, as called for in the motion, there will be a case for a task force for every area of Northern Ireland. I could make a case for my Strangford constituency where the economy has been decimated in recent years by a huge downturn in the traditional textile industries, and I am sure that colleagues from Belfast and elsewhere could make similar cases. We have all been badly affected, and we all suffer from disadvantages, and, to carry on with Leslie Cree’s theme, perhaps the best task force would be the Executive itself, of which the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment is a part.
There is another case to be made against a task force. We all have experience of task forces that build up expectations and deliver nothing. There are any number of task force reports simply gathering dust and not being acted upon. It is essential that we place this important role in the proper context. All areas of Northern Ireland have issues that prevent them from participating in the upturn in the economy, and those must be overcome.
I support the investigation called for in the amendment. It is right that such an investigation be placed in the proper context, as outlined in the amendment, which is that of the Programme for Government, the Budget and the comprehensive spending review. There it would receive better attention, as well as the appropriate resources, in the context of the Executive’s aim to lift the Northern Ireland economy for everyone.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I speak in favour of the motion, and express some disappointment at the amendment. Listening to Lord Morrow’s contribution, I felt that, in many ways, he supported the motion. However, he appeared to rule out the establishment of a task force, as if that were some challenge to the Minister’s authority. Although the motion is a challenge to the Minister, it recognises his authority to put together a task force and to implement its findings. If the DUP were to reflect on that point, I believe that it would support the motion.
The four district councils of Strabane, Omagh, Cookstown and Fermanagh, along with Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council, make up the counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh. It is a vast, rural area, with a diverse, rural population and some major towns. Those counties suffer from an appalling lack of infrastructure. There are no railway lines at all. People there do not even have a railway to complain about, never mind late trains or bad timekeeping. Put simply, there is no rail network in those counties.
They have no motorway and no dual carriageway. There is no regional airport, and the recent debates about Shannon and Belfast airports showed how crucial a regional airport is to the development of any geographical area.
There are no gas pipelines, and no potential for bringing gas into the west. I am concerned that, if recent reports of the potential gas find on the Fermanagh-Cavan border come to fruition, the only pipeline will be one to take gas out of the area.
The water and sewerage infrastructure is not sufficiently progressed to allow for ongoing development of the area. Furthermore, there is very limited broadband access.
The economic indicators — employment, unemployment and poverty — clearly show that the area needs attention. It needs a task force to focus attention on the area, and that task force’s findings should be implemented.
The potential that existed for there to be decentralisation of Departments and agencies has not been delivered on. Unfortunately, the amendment — although those speaking to it almost speak in favour of the motion — misses the key point, which is that a task force would bring with it clarity, and an indication that, at last, the neglected infrastructure and all other areas of neglect in the west would be challenged.
I urge the DUP to rethink the content of its amendment. In many ways, that party is going along with Tommy Gallagher’s thoughts. However, it misses the key point, which is the establishment of a task force. As I have said, the motion is not a challenge to the Minister. It recognises that he has the authority to put a task force together and to bring its findings to fruition.
I urge all Members to support the motion.
Although I represent North Down, I am originally from, and my wider family still live in, and, indeed, at, the centre of the universe — Plumbridge, in the heart of the Sperrins. I have therefore an ongoing interest in the issues involved in the debate.
I thank the Member for that.
For many years, the councils’ economic development units have been doing sterling work. They have come together in teams and produced many glossy and expensive brochures, some of which I have here. However, that work has never quite led to a proper plan that would allow the area west of the Bann to sort itself out and to get up there in the serious economic stakes. Perhaps the time has come for the Executive to co-ordinate those issues and finally produce a plan for success.
I draw Members’ attention to the excellent regional development strategy that appeared during the time of the first Assembly. It took a long time to develop, but we seem to have lost sight of it. At the time, it was the envy of England, Scotland and the Republic. It produced a plan for Northern Ireland that cut across all kinds of issues. Let us remind ourselves of some of them. It noted that farming would become more difficult as the money from Europe dried up and that farmers would need to diversify, and not just on the farms: some of them, or their children, might have to take part-time employment in local towns and villages. Consequently, there would be a need to develop SMEs in those towns and villages to cater for those in the local population seeking work and for farmers looking for part-time jobs.
Transport, and the transport networks, was a major issue. Recently, I had cause to travel from Omagh to Enniskillen, and I do not want to reopen the dreaded hospital debate, but, my goodness, you would not want to be taken poorly in Greencastle or Cranagh on a winter’s night, when Roads Service is unable to grit the roads and it is icy, and to be heading for a hospital in Enniskillen. Chances are that you would be long gone before you reached Omagh. There is a major issue about the infrastructure in that mountainous area that goes right down into Fermanagh and right through Tyrone. It does not affect only medical situations; if people need to transport goods or to meet business colleagues, they face the same difficulties. Everything takes ages.
The Strabane and Omagh area has the fastest-growing population in Northern Ireland. How are we to meet the education needs of young people and provide them with the skills that employers require? How do we encourage young people to stay in the area? We need to create jobs, which will probably be provided by SMEs rather than by major companies coming into the area — home-grown businesses are better as a rule. In order to keep young people there, we need to allow them to live there. On one level, I am quite encouraged that Planning Policy Statement 14 (PPS 14) has gone back to the drawing board. However, that is not to say that there is not a need to protect the countryside. I was in Donegal recently, and it is just appalling. I spent a lot of my childhood there, and what has been done there is iniquitous. I do not want Tyrone and Fermanagh to follow suit, with bungalows shoved in everywhere. There must be some sort of planning policy, but what I do not understand is why those who say that they are interested in rural planning do not want to allow people to rebuild on the sites of existing houses.
In speaking to my colleague Mr Gallagher’s motion, I do not want to rehash or repeat his points.
However, in this new politically stable atmosphere, we want economic growth, so we must facilitate and support that growth.
Investment in job creation and infrastructure is necessary if we are to realise the work of the task force that Tommy Gallagher has proposed. Our Civil Service jobs must be decentralised, and economic advantages will result from the regeneration of our district council towns through that decentralisation. Many of those towns have been totally denuded in recent years as a result of the loss of vital Civil Service jobs, and that has had a ripple effect on local economies. However, as well as the economic advantages, decentralisation has clear social advantages. For example, people with young families are forced to travel day and daily to Belfast to work, getting stuck in traffic jams in so doing, and decentralisation would mean that that would no longer be the case. Decentralisation would also bring environmental advantages. Urban congestion and fuel consumption would be reduced, as would the cost of travel. Many people who face those costs are on low incomes.
Mr McFarland has just absented himself from the Chamber, but he — and Mr Hamilton — referred to planning, which is crucial in order to make land available. For example, the introduction of PPS 14 — although I am not sure how to describe it now — has meant that long-established family, local and rural businesses have suffered. In a particular case that readily springs to mind, one businessman could not expand his business, which was established in a rural area, to create an extra seven jobs. PPS 14 has had detrimental effects. Recently, it has also placed an obstacle in the way of the creation of potentially 150 to 300 jobs. A job-creation scheme is available, but people have to wait two and a half years for a refusal under that package. Businessmen and investors simply will not put up with that type of behaviour.
Instead of presenting obstacles and reasons for not creating jobs, Invest Northern Ireland should be facilitating job creation and doing what it can, within reason, to enable developers to create jobs in those areas that have suffered for many years as a result of economic disadvantage, high levels of unemployment and deprivation. The task force must tackle those planning obstacles at the pre-planning application stage to iron out infrastructural problems, such as difficulties with roads and water. Other planning policy issues and problems with departmental matters such as Department of Agriculture and Rural Development food manufacturing schemes could be smoothed out at that stage, as could cases in which Invest Northern Ireland should be facilitating job creation but is delaying it by making negative comments to the Planning Service.
If the task force tackles those problems, we can arrive at a situation in which we, as Members of a new Assembly can, through the new Executive, create jobs for those who have elected us. If those problems are tackled, a developer who is interested in creating jobs will not be left for two or two and a half years waiting to hear nothing but the refusal of his planning application. Difficulties must be ironed out well before then. We must move into the twenty-first century. The bureaucrats in Invest Northern Ireland who are hindering the process must note that they are there to do a job: to help developers to boost the economy and create jobs. We cannot have those bureaucrats giving developers reasons not to invest. People want encouragement and support, and a “why not?” approach and a professionalism should be there for all to see. We, as elected representatives, demand that type of approach.
I support my colleague’s proposal to establish a task force. As a representative of what is referred to as the rural west, I have related some of my experiences to the House. I hope that we can learn from some of those experiences, and I hope that in future we will be in a position to help to create jobs with maximum efficiency.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I wholeheartedly welcome the motion and thank the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone for proposing it. I also welcome the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to the House today. It is important that the economic deficit in West Tyrone be discussed on the first day of this new session; again, I commend Mr Gallagher for bringing it to the House.
We, in the west, are living with an economic deficit. The Assembly and the Executive have a great responsibility to redress the inequality that exists, particularly between east and west. One of the earlier Members who spoke said that that case could be made for practically any area. I disagree. In August, the Department for Social Development published a report — ‘Households Below Average Income 2005/06’. A key finding of that report, which is relevant to the debate, was that:
“Individuals living in the West of the Province were most at risk of being in low income. Those living in the East of the Province were least at risk.”
Why is that? I am going to whinge and complain about it. It is because there are no jobs, a lack of investment and poor infrastructure. All those points have been made, but I want to emphasise the case: there is a difference between east and west.
Mr Gallagher mentioned tourism signature projects. There is a route in my area that the hon Member for West Tyrone will recognise. It starts in Strabane and goes over Ligfordrum into Plumbridge, up the Glenelly Valley and into County Derry. I guarantee that it is one of the most beautiful routes in this country, equal to anything in the Mournes, on the Causeway or in the glens. Where is our signature project? It does not exist. Mr Gallagher made an important point, and I support him fully.
These days I often pass the Titanic Quarter. Fair play to the people who are working on that project. In May, the Executive gave — how much was it? — £25 million to that project. Fair play to whoever is responsible for the project. There are loads more millions available for it, according to the report on the website. [Interruption.]
It does not matter which party a Minister comes from. I am speaking for the west. Whatever Ministers happen to be in the Executive, it is for all of them to make those decisions.
In discussing this matter, several Members have spoken of WEST — the western economic strategy team. I must say right away that I sat on that body, as did my council colleague on the other side of the House, Councillor Allan Bresland, who is now also a Member for West Tyrone. I have great respect for that group’s work. If we are to implement the task force — and I support the motion and the establishment of such an employment task force — that group will make a good reference point. Go raibh míle maith agat.
I am pleased that the motion is being debated today, coming as I do from Stewartstown on the western shores of Lough Neagh and representing Mid Ulster. I am well placed to discuss the economic difficulties in the west of the Province. The economic recovery in Northern Ireland since 1998 has been remarkable, but hardly surprising. The IRA campaign of terror was designed to bring Ulster to its knees economically, and to that end, we had numerous bomb attacks on town centres, hotels and restaurants.
Such activity was designed to destroy our economy and to ensure that local investment dried up, while potential outside investment stayed away. Thankfully, those days appear to be behind us.
Although the whole country suffered economic depression due to IRA terrorist attacks over 30 years, I contend that the particular circumstances of the west of the Province meant that the impact of that depression was even more pronounced in that region. The lack of a modern transport infrastructure is a huge issue. There is no railway line throughout a huge swathe of the west, barring that which runs from Belfast to Londonderry to the far north. Promises that were made back in 1960, when the west’s railway lines were torn up, were not delivered upon, and, to this day, we still have no motorway except that which begins at the outskirts of Dungannon.
The west of the Province suffers from the traditional Belfast-based mentality that civilisation ends at Glengormley and Lisburn. To put it another way, if something is not within 10 miles of Belfast, it is not worth going to. I have no doubt that such thinking, even subconsciously, has clouded the opinions and decisions of policy makers in the past and continues to do so to this day. Even given a benign interpretation of events, Belfast has seen a great deal of development, such as the Titanic Quarter, the Waterfront Hall, the Odyssey Arena and Victoria Square. The Belfast lobby is not content with those; look at the outcry there was when John Lewis dared to try to move as far west as the city of Lisburn. Belfast obviously needs it share of development, but so do the rest of us. Belfast’s traffic congestion will only get worse if more and more people are forced to leave the west of the Province to commute to Belfast for work, or move to fuel the already crazy property market in the city.
The west of the Province has traditionally had pockets of extremely high unemployment, such as used to be found in Strabane. However, problems have also arisen from the traditional reliance on agriculture and related industries for employment opportunities. The agriculture industry has been beset with problems in recent years due to foot-and-mouth disease, BSE, low farm income and high feed prices. Those factors have compounded an already difficult situation, and many farmers and businesses in the textile industries are at their wit’s end, laying off staff, and, in many cases, giving up altogether.
I have no doubt that the west of the Province could benefit from a task force, but we have seen task force initiatives on several occasions in the past — talk is cheap, and nothing is done. We require the political will to ensure that real action will follow any recommendations for the establishment of a task force.
I congratulate Mr Gallagher for securing the debate. As the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, I share Mr Gallagher’s desire to see the west of Northern Ireland continuing to benefit from a steady improvement in the economy. References have been made to my grass roots in Fermanagh. Although I was born in Londonderry, I was brought up in Fermanagh, and I am all too aware of the issues in the west of the Province. However, I do not think that we should set false confrontations in this Assembly.
The issue is not about east versus west; it is about raising all of Northern Ireland’s economy so that everybody can benefit, paying absolute regard to the particular challenges and disadvantages that affect particular areas, whether in the west, the north-west, the south or certain parts of Belfast. All Assembly Members could, can, and do, rightly, bring issues of particular concern to me and other Ministers. It is important that we take all of those into account while developing for Northern Ireland — as a whole — an economic strategy that lifts the entire economy and drives it forward.
The Member has drawn attention to a point that was mentioned in the debate. Perhaps those who tabled the debate will explain during the winding-up speech why they have defined the west in such a way and why some areas have been excluded.
I am simply making the point that there are particular challenges and issues in all parts of the Province, some of which are more exaggerated and emphasised in some areas than others. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the particular challenges and issues that affect the west of the Province, as defined by Mr Gallagher.
Overall, Northern Ireland has enjoyed sustained economic growth over the past 15 years. The economy continues to perform well in historic terms. Employment levels are higher than ever, and we are benefiting from lower unemployment. As Members have said, the Northern Ireland unemployment rate has remained below the 5% mark for over two years. The current unemployment rate of 2·3% is one of the lowest in the United Kingdom.
However, stating those figures does not underestimate the challenges that remain, not just for the west, but for all of Northern Ireland. That includes the need to address lower levels of productivity and private sector earnings, the high levels of economic inactivity and the relatively small private sector, compared with the public sector. A number of Government strategies are in place, including the regional innovation strategy, the regional development strategy, the Department for Employment and Learning’s skills strategy and the investment strategy for Northern Ireland. However, it is important that the new devolved Administration builds on those measures to make the economy more sustainable and create the wealth that will enable us to pursue the level and quality of provision that we want across Northern Ireland. That is why the Executive are highlighting the economy for special attention in the Programme for Government and comprehensive spending review process.
No one in the House or outside it could fail to have noticed the emphasis that has been placed by all parties in the Executive on the need to drive forward the economy. All parties have recognised that a healthy, growing, vibrant economy is essential to move forward, not only on the standard of living, but on the provision of healthcare, education services and world-class environmental and housing provision. It is not a question of the economy versus social provision; it is a matter of the economy being central in order to provide the wherewithal to make progress on the other issues.
A number of Members, not least the proposer of the motion, have referred to roads, decentralisation, health matters, transportation, railways, airports, planning, and several other matters. Those are legitimate issues to raise when considering the development of the west. The motion, however, calls on the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to take action to assist the economic development of the west. Those matters are outside my remit but they are matters for the Executive as a whole. That is why it is important that a cross-cutting and collective approach is taken.
There is considerable merit in the amendment that has been tabled. I am happy to deal with the issues that fall within my responsibilities, but it is worth noting that the employment and unemployment statistics for the western region are broadly similar to the Northern Ireland average. There are pockets where that is not the case, just as there are areas in any set of statistics that do not carry the broad thrust of those figures. However, the latest figures demonstrate that, in the areas that are mentioned in the motion, the overall positions in claimant-count unemployment, percentage decrease in unemployment and increases in employee jobs are almost identical to the Northern Ireland average. The one area where there is a marked difference is the economic inactivity rate, which includes people on incapacity benefit, students and older people. I will deal with that point shortly.
I shall explain what my Department and its agencies are doing, in partnership with other Departments, to support economic development in the areas covered by Fermanagh, Omagh, Strabane, Dungannon and Cookstown councils. DETI policy already recognises the problems that are faced by a number of council areas in the west. The Department has disadvantaged-area maps, which are based on the income and employment indicators of deprivation from the 2005 Northern Ireland measure of multiple deprivation, and they designate Strabane, Omagh, Cookstown and Dungannon as disadvantaged areas.
Those areas are already designated. In practice, that means that the Department and its agencies are committed to paying particular attention to such areas when delivering policies and programmes. I have ensured that that is the case. For example, Invest Northern Ireland has targets to attract 75% of all first-time inward investment projects to locate in disadvantaged areas and to secure at least 40% of new business starts there. The latest figures show that those targets are being met; indeed, the figure for investment projects is some 80%.
People talk about neglect, and so forth. It is a question of balance and ensuring that we know what is happening and what measures are already in place. Of course, there is room for improvement and certain factors must be taken into account as the areas develop. Invest Northern Ireland can also offer an enhanced incentives package to companies wishing to locate projects in disadvantaged areas. The size of that package is determined by the merits and scale of the project and the number and quality of jobs available.
An important role for the Department for Employment and Learning is to address the high rate of economic inactivity in order to encourage economic growth. Parts of the west have some of the highest rates of economic inactivity in Northern Ireland, a point that Lord Morrow and several other Members raised. Colleagues in the Department for Employment and Learning, with whom my Department has a close working relationship, have a comprehensive range of provisions available to address the supply of labour and to help those who are economically inactive to find work. That includes the Pathways to Work initiative for people receiving incapacity benefit, which will be available throughout Northern Ireland by April 2008; it will be rolled out in Omagh and Dungannon next month.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Invest Northern Ireland has regional offices in Omagh and Enniskillen, and continues to engage at a local level with councils and other stakeholders to deliver effective economic development activity in the west. Invest Northern Ireland’s officials are involved with various organisations in the region that Members have mentioned, including WEST, to which several favourable references have been made.
Members have talked about taking action and task forces. WEST provides an example of having done the work and produced a report. Executive Ministers, as part of their discussions on the Programme for Government, the economy, the comprehensive spending review and the Budget, must be able to take all such reports into account rather than waiting for a task force that will not report until after those matters have been dealt with.
The regional office is supported by a full range of programmes and initiatives from Invest Northern Ireland, which are available for local companies. A dedicated ICT adviser for the western region offers specialist advice to SMEs. That relates to a point that Mr Molloy raised on the need to encourage family businesses to become more export oriented. He is right, because that challenge faces not only the west, but everywhere in Northern Ireland, which has a high percentage of SMEs. By investing in R&D and innovation, my Department’s role is to encourage those enterprises to become outward looking, export oriented and to increase productivity. Those areas are specifically targeted in the west and must be targeted across Northern Ireland.
Manufacturing has been mentioned, and reference was made to industrial rating. Members know about the ongoing review that was instigated by the Department of Finance and Personnel. The report of that review will be sent to the Executive and the Assembly in due course. Industrial rating is an important issue for local manufacturers. I welcome many of Mr Cree’s comments; however, he seemed to say that the Varney Review of Tax Policy in Northern Ireland was somehow irrelevant when compared with industrial rating, but he went on to talk about the need to increase productivity.
The critical point about the Varney Review is that it seeks to address how to achieve regional convergence and increase Northern Ireland’s performance in comparison with other regions of the United Kingdom. The new tools and instruments of financial policy that are being sought as part of the Varney Review are required to drive forward the economy and thereby make the major change that is needed to increase productivity.
If we continue to act as we have in the past, we will not make the real difference that everyone wants to see in Northern Ireland. There are many wonderful examples of manufacturing companies in the west of the Province, and Members from those areas will know them well.
I congratulate those companies that are doing so much in the manufacturing sector and those that are involved in exports and in substantial areas of trade. It is also clear that the west is benefiting from increased investment in the service sector, and there are many examples of that. There is also a strong ethos of entrepreneurship in the west. Over the past five years, business start-up figures for the western region have been consistently higher than the Northern Ireland average. There is a danger that we are talking the area down — there are challenges, but we should also recognise the excellent work being done.
With regard to tourism, my Executive colleagues and I are mindful that tourism in Northern Ireland has underperformed for the past 30 years, for obvious reasons. Tourism has an important part to play in our economy and has enormous potential. Rural areas in the west of the Province have an important role to play, and a regional tourism partnership has been created in the west to drive forward the delivery of tourism at the strategic level.
Mrs McGill mentioned tourism signature projects and the money that has been made available for the Titanic signature project. As she seems puzzled as to where the money came from, I will clarify that for her. It was achieved with the active endorsement of all members of the Executive, including those Sinn Féin MLAs who represent the west and who voted for it. I am therefore very surprised at her comments today.
Infrastructure and telecommunications were also mentioned. On several occasions, Members have mentioned the inaccessibility of broadband to people in the west. According to international investors, one of Northern Ireland’s selling points is the fact that it is the only region — and was the first region of the UK — to have 100% broadband accessibility. The policy objective was pursued that there should be no digital divide that would disadvantage remote areas such as parts of the west, where customer volume alone would not justify private sector involvement. If Members have particular issues to raise about that, I will be happy to take them on board.
I welcome the debate: it will help to draw attention to the problems and challenges that exist in the economic development of the west. We should focus on that, and I assure all Members that I will ensure that we will address those issues as part of the Programme for Government, the comprehensive spending review, and in the Budget discussions over the coming weeks.