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The Programme for Government and the investment strategy set out clearly that promoting a regional balance and addressing existing regional disparities is a key objective for the Executive. That is crucial if we are to promote and facilitate economic growth and social progress across Northern Ireland.
Members will be aware that the deputy First Minister and I have set up a task force called the cross-sector advisory forum to allow us to continue dialogue with key stakeholder groups and to tap into the well of local economic — and other — talent in Northern Ireland. The forum, which is chaired jointly by the deputy First Minister and me, has 30 members. It has been established to address particular issues and to make recommendations for addressing the problems that are arising from the current economic crisis.
The terms of reference and details of the membership of the group have been placed in the Assembly Library for information. The first meeting of the forum took place on 6 April 2009. The infrastructure development of areas west of the Bann, and, indeed, of all parts of Northern Ireland, is considered in the investment strategy for Northern Ireland. Naturally, the forum’s remit will take account of the impact that the economic crisis is having across Northern Ireland.
Tá mé buíoch den Aire as a fhreagra.
I am grateful to the First Minister for his answer. The importance of the infrastructure to our economy is implicit in the question. I want to highlight the fact that businesses west of the Bann face additional hurdles, including poor broadband access in many communities and a generally poor roads infrastructure.
Will the First Minister and deputy First Minister encourage the forum to take a special look at the economic needs of businesses west of the Bann?
The deputy First Minister, who represents a constituency west of the Bann, is unlikely to allow the concerns of the region to go unheard. As for infrastructure: Northern Ireland was in advance of any other country in Europe with regard to broadband access capability. That is now being upgraded, and, happily, will be coming into the north-west of the Province, and there should, therefore, be considerable advantage from that.
As far as roads are concerned: I assure the Member that, during my time as a roads Minister — which, admittedly, was some years ago — I used to get accused of spending too much money west of the Bann, and most of the road improvements and ― [Interruption.] [Laughter.] Oh, yes: if anyone looks, they will see that more money was spent west of the Bann during that period than was spent east of the Bann. However, I very much doubt whether the current roads Minister is discriminating against the west of the Bann on those issues.
We want the whole of Northern Ireland to enjoy prosperity. The goal of the Executive is to ensure that the benefits of devolution filter down to not just every strata of society, but to every location in Northern Ireland, and it is in the interests of us all to ensure that the communities west of the Bann have all the advantages of devolution.
That question covers territory that I covered in my statement earlier today. I again say that I cannot see any logic in anyone suggesting that we should change our Programme for Government, given that it has, as its priority, the growth of our economy, which is precisely what anyone would do if they were starting with a blank piece of paper today.
Of course, the Budget will change from time to time, and there will be priorities that each party ― and, indeed, each Minister in the Executive ― may well want to put forward. We are open to proposals as to where reductions can be made in spending so that increases can be made in other areas. I do point out to the Member, however, that there has been a higher spend on capital projects in Northern Ireland during the past year than there has ever been, and we are planning to do even better in the next 12 months.
I listened with interest to the exchanges about the roads system west of the Bann. I went down to have a look at it myself on Friday, and was mightily impressed ― [Interruption.]
Yes, right down as far as Enniskillen, Tommy.
Has the First Minister considered the disproportionate impact of the recession on the East Antrim constituency, especially since 10% of employment comes from the relatively safe public-sector sources, compared with the UK constituency average of 20%, and the Belfast average of 53%? What steps does he intend to take to address that inequality east of the Bann, and, specifically, in East Antrim?
I can recall that when I was Finance Minister, the Member for West Tyrone always used to tell me that because of the number of people working in the public sector in the Omagh area, there was a necessity for more public-sector jobs to go to that area. Actually, on a travel-to-work basis, there were more people working in public-sector jobs in his constituency than anywhere else in Northern Ireland, including in Belfast, per head of population of economically active people. The worst of the whole of Northern Ireland was that general Larne catchment area. My argument had consistently been that that was an area where we should start looking if we are displacing jobs from the centre of Belfast.
However, much has to do with infrastructure, and the Larne area has a very important facility with the ferry, which is a very important means of communication with mainland Britain, and it is vital that the roads to and from the port are improved.
I am sure that the Member is as glad as I am that the Government of the Republic of Ireland are still committing themselves to giving funding for the road improvement, which will help that area’s economy.