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Economic Development in West Belfast

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:45 pm on 20th October 2009.

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Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin 6:45 pm, 20th October 2009

The proposer of the topic has 15 minutes in which to speak. All other Members who wish to speak will have up to 10 minutes.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Business Committee for accepting this Adjournment debate. I also thank those who remain in the Chamber to contribute to it, including the Minister, who has a long distance to travel this evening.

Everybody who knows west Belfast will acknowledge and thank the people of the area, who, across the walls and divisions, have developed over the years a common and shared agenda for the needs of the community and its economic development.

I will begin by offering some answers to the problems that west Belfast faces as a deeply deprived community. I want to flag up five or six issues, some of which apply to west Belfast in particular and others that can be broadly applied to areas of need and unemployment in the North of Ireland.

First, the Government tell us that more investment is being rolled out in the North than in any phase of our history. However, that is not reflected by social clauses in the award of public contracts. Only one public contract that has been awarded recently contains a social clause requiring the employment of unemployed people. The contract is for a footbridge in Derry, and there is a requirement to employ one unemployed person for every £1 million of spend, which, in that case, means employing eight people. If big investment is to be rolled out, subject to the financial situation in the coming years, such a requirement must become a mainstay in the award of public contracts. That is true for west Belfast, especially in the event of the award of a contract for a new hospital for women and babies on the Royal Hospitals site. I will return to that matter later.

When the new chief executive of Invest NI was appointed, I sensed that the door was more open than it had been heretofore; I still believe that that is the case. Without discussing the details of specific ongoing negotiations, I say to the Minister and to Invest NI that now is the time to open that door fully to employers, especially the indigenous employers of west Belfast. I have no doubt that conversations are ongoing and that business cases have been presented to Invest NI and its new chief executive. It is now time to deliver on those conversations. In the event that those conversations do not reach maturity and success, then, potentially, indigenous employers in west Belfast who compete in the global market and have a substantial and growing workforce and are the best example of manufacturing in Northern Ireland, as regards outreach into the world — one business in particular — might not fulfil their economic potential here and may go overseas.

I listened attentively to the Minister’s comments during her conclusion to the previous debate. She was right: job location is dictated by many factors, and she named some of them. However, job location is also influenced by the intention and ambition of economic agencies when it comes to deprived areas such as west Belfast. The hard figures show that, in the past year, west Belfast received the fourth lowest amount of assistance for economic development from Invest NI. It is well down the league table of visits by potential investors, but it is not as low as Derry and south Down. Nonetheless, the number of visits is so low that it is virtually meaningless. Unless Invest NI sets hard targets and is judged by its results, people will continue to believe that its interests are in south and east Belfast, regardless of the Minister’s assertion that contracts in south and east Belfast will lead to business in other parts of the North. The imbalance in economic investment between north and west Belfast and south and east Belfast is too enormous and requires remedial action.

I mentioned the Royal Hospitals earlier. There would be no better economic investment in west Belfast than in a hospital for women and babies on the Royal Hospitals site. There is no better way to define west Belfast than through that investment. In 2000, a Minister said that a building would be erected on the site in five years; in 2003, another Minister said that funding was available to commence the work quickly. Therefore, it is a matter of grave regret that, nine years later, the cost of a newbuild hospital is £400 million, which is much greater than it was previously. That issue must be addressed. Negotiations are ongoing on the devolution of policing and justice, and some reassurances have been given about capital projects for the justice side, perhaps the new prison or the police college. I am worried that, when it comes down to it, there will be greater pain in relation to other capital projects in the North, such as the new maternity hospital on the Royal Victoria Hospital site. I hope that that fear is not realised, but it could be.

I want to briefly mention Visteon, to which the Minister has been attentive. When I contacted the Pensions Regulator recently, he told me that he was about to open four boxes of documents relating to the matter. It will be of residual reassurance to the people who lost good jobs that should never have been lost if the Government and Members of the Assembly continue to press the Pensions Regulator to correct what were, in my view, irregularities in the management of Visteon’s pension fund.

I ask the Minister and her colleagues to consider the need for better joined-up activity between agencies and Departments on the requirements of west Belfast. The closure of Bass Ireland, Trivirix, Mackies International, Boxmore International plc, Richardsons, Westside and Ford Visteon has raised many issues. The lands that were zoned for economic development should be protected so that, in the event of a turn in fortunes of the constituency of West Belfast, they are developed for economic purposes.

I want the Minister to re-examine an unfair clause that legislates against places such as west Belfast by not allowing the development of office accommodation that exceeds 2,000 sq m. That is an impediment in a situation of grave difficulty for west Belfast, and it must be revisited, as should the bar on financial assistance for hotel developments within a 10-mile radius of Belfast city centre. The lack of hotel accommodation outside Belfast is an impediment to tourism development in the North and must be addressed. All the indicators show that, based on all the tourist interests in west Belfast, hotel development in that part of the city should be forthcoming.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin 7:15 pm, 20th October 2009

The Member has covered many issues. Living in inner-city west Belfast, I know that, for many years, there has been a belief that the city centre has been pushed eastwards on the western and eastern sides of the River Lagan. That has left an almost total dereliction of the north and west ends of the city centre. Major investment there could create hundreds — if not thousands — of new jobs.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I concur with my colleague from West Belfast. There are many other proposals that I could make to the Minister in writing in due course, but that is why, in an indicative way, the adjustments that I have recommended, along with others, can reprofile west Belfast so that it becomes that much more attractive to any new investors that INI may bring in in the coming year and beyond.

Ultimately, a strategic approach to development is required. No constituency in the North has, by itself and through external advice, developed better projects to sustain and accelerate its economic development. Consider the DSD proposal for the Andersonstown gateway, the enterprise proposals for the Black Mountain, the Andersonstown village, the Gaeltacht quarter, Fernhill House and the village communities in the Shankill and elsewhere. Consider the proposals that have come from the West Belfast Partnership Board, which is a mature organisation that has experienced a great deal of growth and pain over the years. It is not for want of visionary proposals that are right for the constituency that economic development has not gone as far as it should have. It needs a strategic approach, and the time has come for the constituency and government to decide what such an approach should be.

There are many options. Some people argue for an urban development strategy, such as those of Laganside Corporation or the Maze/Long Kesh. Others say that the strategic regeneration framework, which knits together the city and could knit together the constituency, is in place and is the right model. Some people in the community sector in west Belfast, for whom I have the greatest regard, just say, “Get on with it”. They do not want us to get too heavily involved in the architecture.

I have a view about how that issue should be resolved, but it needs to be resolved so that proposals, such as those for the Andersonstown gateway, which Margaret Ritchie described as far-reaching and transformative, and those which the Enterprise Council calls “Think Transformation” can be realised over the next decade. It could, realistically, take that amount of time.

I have offered some solutions to the problem of the lack of development in west Belfast, but the question is why it is so. It is not just because this part of our country has suffered, along with north Belfast, the greatest loss of life and the greatest upset and disorder through the years of conflict; it is also because west Belfast, when measured across virtually every multiple deprivation index, comes out bottom or near bottom of the league. That is confirmed by figures released in August, which state that the West Belfast constituency — I have not mentioned any part of West Belfast, I refer to the entire constituency — has the fourth highest unemployment rate of any Westminster constituency. That rate includes 22·6% of males and 7·3% of females: 15·8% overall. Imagine a street where 22·6% of the adult male population are not in work.

Although those figures are harsh, they do not begin to tell the story of the struggle that some people face in order to live in those conditions. Those figures cannot convey the hopelessness and exasperation of people in that condition. They cannot and do not convey how alienating life can be for people in that condition. They cannot measure the damage done to the soul of an individual or of a community that has displayed such resilience in the face of adversity in every other way over the past 30 or 40 years. For all those reasons, I hope that the debate might be a catalyst to further, urgent actions around those matters.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. Someone recently said that, over the past 10 or 20 years, there have been five Presidents, five Prime Ministers, three Secretaries-General of the UN and there has been enormous global change, but, for all the change in our society, a lot of that has yet to impact on the abject conditions of poverty and deprivation faced by far too many in west Belfast.

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank my constituency colleague for bringing the adjournment debate to the House, because economic development in west Belfast is very important.

To pick up on one of the points that Mr Attwood mentioned, there are many ideas, proposals and master plans. On occasion, I have argued that there are too many. All those plans allow all the Departments to escape their responsibilities, because they can blame each other. They can also blame each other for the number of proposals and feasibility studies that have been carried out. I guarantee that dozens of those documents can be seen in any community organisation or constituency office in West Belfast. That is wrong.

I have the Enterprise Council’s feasibility study, ‘Think Transformation’, as well as the Department for Social Development’s Andersonstown gateway feasibility study.

The inclusion of timeframes in some of the documents provides Departments with an escape route. The regeneration of west Belfast may take 20 years, and such a timeframe may allow Departments to put projects on the long finger. The women and children’s hospital at the Royal is one example; it will now cost far more than was originally anticipated.

It is worth reflecting that one third of Belfast’s population lives in the west of the city, including the Shankill. I refer to the constituency as a whole and do not segregate it in any way. We have a duty to ensure that those people have good employment opportunities and that they can create businesses in the constituency of West Belfast. Many Departments have managed to escape dealing directly with west Belfast; indeed, some of the recommendations in the task force reports have yet to be implemented. Departments must step up to the mark; we have heard all about how much certain Departments will invest, but that investment is often put on the long finger. That is not good enough; it is time that Departments gave the people of west Belfast a fair crack of the whip in respect to investment opportunities.

I must thank a number of community organisations. The West Belfast Partnership Board has worked on many issues over the years, and it has had a lead role in economic development, including the strategic regeneration framework, and in bringing traders’ forums together. The Enterprise Council, which is funded by Invest NI, is also important, and we must recognise the role of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in that. Some Departments have been better than others in implementing the task force’s recommendations.

Gerry Adams, Jennifer McCann, Fra McCann and I recently met Alastair Hamilton in the constituency. Compared to other Invest NI representatives with whom we have dealt, he said many of the right things; however, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Areas such as west Belfast need delivery. We must give people a chance to work together, and one of the highlights of the meeting was the idea that more can be achieved if we work together. Hopefully, the meeting with Invest NI’s new chief executive represents a positive new start. We can delve into the past, but people such as Alastair Hamilton must be given the opportunity to take us forward. Complaining about the past will not change it; instead, we must work together to ensure that we achieve more.

There have been significant changes. For example, the Tourist Board recently held a meeting in west Belfast for the first time. That reflects positively on both the Tourist Board and the Minister’s Department. The meeting was held in An Chultúrlann, and Tourist Board officials also visited some of west Belfast’s tourist attractions, including the graveyards. I recently received a letter of thanks from Howard Wells of the Tourist Board. He said that he and the other representatives had really enjoyed their trip to the west of the city. Those are positive signs, and I hope that we can ensure that such good work continues. Tourism is a very —

Photo of Nelson McCausland Nelson McCausland DUP

Perhaps the Member will help me, because I am a little confused about the sudden mention of Howard Wells. Howard Wells may have certain skills in the football world, but I did not know that he was involved in tourism.

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin 7:30 pm, 20th October 2009

I appreciate that. Minister, I think that it was your Department’s arm’s-length bodies that did the job of getting rid of Howard Wells, but that was before you became Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure. I hope that Howard Hastings will stay in post a lot longer than Howard Wells did.

A number of exciting initiatives are planned for the west of the city. For example, the rapid transit system will allow connectivity between east and west Belfast and other parts of the city, and, if we get it right, it will allow people from east Belfast to enjoy employment opportunities in west Belfast.

There is also the proposed redevelopment of Casement Park. I see that the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure has just joined us in the Chamber, so we have the luxury of having two Ministers present for the debate. I urge the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to do all that he can to ensure that that redevelopment happens as smoothly and quickly as possible. We talked about the Andersonstown gateway and the regeneration of that area, and the redevelopment of Casement Park would be a massive step in the right direction in that it would create employment opportunities in west Belfast. That positive step should be taken sooner rather than later.

We have had many issues with the Tourist Board, and Alex Attwood touched on the fact that west Belfast is the only part of Belfast that does not yet have a hotel. I know that, at one time, Lisburn was the only city that did not have a hotel, but it now has one. I hope that in the not-too-distant future, there will be hotels in west Belfast. Thousands upon thousands of tourists come to the west of the city daily, but they do not stay in the west; they spend their money and the evening in other parts of the city.

I ask the Minister to consider whether it is possible to introduce pilot schemes that will tackle the severe shortage of tourist accommodation in the west of the city; for example, schemes to establish bed and breakfasts. Over the years, many people have bought into the tourism concept for west Belfast. Sometimes people there feel like goldfish in a bowl; people drive in and drive back out again. We need to work hard to change that. Perhaps, Minister, we could look at that issue together to see what possibilities exist. I would be very grateful if your Department could consider the matter.

The Gaeltacht Quarter is very important because it promotes both language and culture, and that distinguishes the area from other parts of the city, such as the Titanic Quarter, the Cathedral Quarter or Queen’s Quarter. I am not sure how many quarters there are in Belfast now; the last time I counted, there were around seven. Those who work in the area and who sit on the Gaeltacht Quarter board — most of whom do so in a voluntary capacity — have worked hard to ensure that the quarter has developed. The Minister can ask Howard Hastings and the board about the respect that they were shown in the meeting at An Cultúrlann, which is in the heart of the Gaeltacht Quarter.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin

People from the Greater Shankill Partnership were at the meeting also. Minister, I leave those thoughts with you.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank Mr Attwood for securing the debate, and I will concentrate on some issues that have not been covered, rather that repeat what other Members have said.

The previous debate was on Invest NI, and the Minister was present for that, too. I must repeat that people in west Belfast feel very let down by organisations such as Invest NI. Whether people agree with that statement or not, we must consider the issue from the viewpoint of those who live in that area. Let me return to some of the recommendations in the report by the West Belfast and Greater Shankill task forces. For example, when consideration was being given to which areas would be designated as major employment locations in the Belfast metropolitan area plan, Invest NI did not heed the task force call for west Belfast to be designated as one such location. I wanted to touch on that point.

There is a clear need for a focus on economic development in west Belfast. The last two Members to speak have mentioned various proposals, and I have also been involved in some of the proposals from the development stage. Some worthy proposals can sit for too long at the planning stage or remain as strategies that do not go anywhere. The Enterprise Council’s Belfast Hills project is a good proposal. As Members mentioned, in the constituency that I am from and in which I live, money has been secured to continue the Colin Glen gateway project that had stalled for years. That is all good news.

In Fra McCann’s area, projects include the Andersonstown gateway at Castle Street and the Andersonstown village. There are a lot of good projects in the system, and I hope that they can be taken forward. West Belfast is a good area for business to locate and for foreign direct investment. The large Mackie’s site, for instance, is not being used. It is on the Springfield Road, which leads directly to Belfast International Airport. People could, therefore, fly in and out without having to go through the city centre. There is plenty of office space.

Some people may say that the social economy is my hobby horse, but I have to mention it. Many social enterprises, particularly in areas such as west Belfast, came from the community and voluntary sector, and they had to reinvent themselves when their funding began to dry up.

Last week, I attended a launch of the social economy fund at the Farset centre. I listened to some of the stories, and there was one of a young girl who was working in the Shankill Women’s Centre. She told how she had left school aged 16 and become pregnant at the age of 17. She had no qualifications, and no one was offering her an employment opportunity. The Shankill Women’s Centre offered an NVQ course in childcare, and she now works in the childcare project there. The Shankill Women’s Centre is now in the process of trying to create and develop a second childcare project, because it is needed.

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin

It goes back to what I said earlier, and Alex Attwood also touched on it: in many of the streets in west Belfast, the rate of unemployment may be 26% or even higher. The Member mentioned the Shankill and the Falls, where the rate could be 50% or 60%. Most of that unemployment is not recent; in some areas, it is generational.

In my constituency, a young man told me that he could not wait to leave school and start working in McDonald’s. Something drastic is needed right away to allow such children to buy into the situation. Ms McCann mentioned the Mackie’s site, where the prospect of west Belfast having a university was taken away. Something must be done in those areas that will have an immediate impact over the next year or two, and that will tell the people of the area that they are worth something, not only in that community but in the broader scheme of political life.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

I agree. Other successful projects in the social economy sector include the Ardmonagh Family Centre, the Footprints Women’s Centre and Colin Care. As they are businesses, they generate profit, but they invest that profit in creating more jobs for people in, for example, women’s centres.

Alex Attwood talked about public procurement, which, particularly at local council level, could generate employment in those areas. The earlier debate touched on the idea that some businesses do not want to locate to areas like west Belfast because they do not see a skilled workforce there. The skills are there, but I recognise that not everybody would be at the level to do those jobs straight away. However, there are ways to create employment for people like the young girl who was mentioned earlier, for instance. Perhaps she is doing an NVQ this year, but she may go on to gain other skills and qualifications.

Mention was made of a project in the Colin area that is dealing with graffiti, picking up litter and generally keeping the area tidy. It is trying to get a contract from Lisburn City Council. There are ways in which local councils could use their public procurement policies to achieve value for money, add value to the regeneration of a local community and the local economy, and create jobs. There are all those ways of looking at at economic development in west Belfast, but we should not take our eye off the ball in relation to getting major investment into the area.

People say that if investment was made in east Belfast or south Belfast, people from west Belfast could travel there. However, the reality is that, depending on where the investment is made in those areas, there may not be a public transport system. Therefore, unless people have cars, they may have to get two buses. If people live at the further end of west Belfast, in places like Twinbrook and Poleglass, they would have to come right down into the city centre and then get another bus. I am not saying that that is not doable, especially if people need the jobs, but, when we are looking at the proposed rapid-transit system, for instance — which, hopefully, will be put in place — there will be better connections throughout north, south, east and west Belfast, which is a good thing.

The people of west Belfast must get inward investment into their area. As I said, the area is ripe for it, and it would be good because it would create a confidence in people. My colleague Fra McCann mentioned the long-term unemployed and the economically inactive — they would all benefit from investment, so those issues should run as a twin track.

I mentioned the social economy. A number of small and medium-sized businesses, which perhaps employ 20 or 30 people, are located in the area, and I have visited some of them over the past six or seven months. We could help them to create a dynamic. Some of those businesses export their products, which is good. If we can get that help from organisations like Invest NI, we will go a long way.

Photo of Nelson McCausland Nelson McCausland DUP

Issues have been raised today about employment, unemployment and employment opportunities in west Belfast. I want to draw attention to some of those points in relation to a particular area of west Belfast, namely the Shankill. Not all of the Shankill area is in west Belfast, but a substantial part of it is. The comments that I will make concern that part in west Belfast and the wider community of the greater Shankill.

Many of the points that have already been made are common right across west Belfast and the greater Shankill. I will pick up on a few of those. In regard to the points Paul Maskey made about the potential for tourism, we have seen a tremendous growth in tourism over the years. More and more people from abroad come to Belfast. A number of cruise ships bring people to the city, and many weekend visitors come for short breaks in Belfast.

The difficulty is that all too often people stay in the city centre and do not really go out to the various communities. If they do, it is probably in a bus that drives through those areas but does not actually stop. The visitors look at people and continue on their way, without stopping in those communities to use facilities or to spend money in shops and so on. We must find ways of ensuring that tourism is broadened from the city centre to communities across Belfast — north, south, east and west.

Progress is being made in developing tourism in the Shankill area. The Greater Shankill Partnership and Shankill Tourism, which is part of the partnership, carried out a piece of work some time ago to brand the Shankill. They came up with the brand “Original Belfast” because the Shankill is the oldest part of Belfast. The graveyard on the Shankill Road is at the site of the original Christian settlement in the area; it is the oldest community in Belfast, hence the area was branded as “Original Belfast”. There is a nice picture in the newspaper of the Minister dressed in her “Original Belfast” T-shirt on the occasion of that launch.

Thus, there is potential in the idea of having city quarters, although I accept that there is no limit to the apparently endless number of quarters that a city can have. A proposal is emerging for a Shankill cultural quarter. That should be encouraged, because the Shankill has a good brand name that is known across the world. People from the Shankill have travelled around the world, and it has a rich cultural heritage.

The report of the West Belfast and Greater Shankill task forces has been referred to. I sometimes think that it is almost as though such projects develop with a primary emphasis on west Belfast; the greater Shankill can sometimes be almost forgotten and be a bit of an afterthought. That can be for a number of reasons, particularly historic, because during the period that that report was being prepared, there were internal difficulties in the Shankill that militated against proper engagement in the process.

However, we need to flag up that whenever people talk about west Belfast and the greater Shankill, whether about this or other initiatives, there must be a general recognition that the Shankill community needs to be engaged fully and properly. In some ways, the greater Shankill, and even the west Belfast part of it, is as much linked to north Belfast as it is to west Belfast. I think, for example, of the opportunities that will be presented by the development of the Crumlin Road jail and the courthouse, which sit in north Belfast. However, the streets across the road from those buildings, which are in the lower Shankill, are part of west Belfast. I think that there is huge potential for the Shankill part of west Belfast, in that it is adjacent to and contiguous with the Crumlin Road jail and courthouse. That will be a major tourism draw in the future that will benefit not just north, but west Belfast.

There is also the potential to draw people from that area into the city centre and to draw people up from the Cathedral Quarter as it develops. The Belfast Education and Library Board, and now the Northern Ireland Library Authority have mooted proposals to redevelop Belfast Central Library into a much bigger facility with a full provincial significance. With greater development in that area, we will see some movement of the city’s centre of gravity in that direction. Councillors who represent the north of the city have discussed the idea of using a cultural corridor to link the Cathedral Quarter to the jail and the courthouse so that people can be drawn to that area.

There are as many really significant historic buildings in that short stretch of road as there are in any part of Belfast. From St Patrick’s and the former school beside it, up to the poorhouse, the Orange Hall, the old synagogue in Annesley Street, the Clifton Street graveyard, St Malachy’s, the Mater Hospital and so on, right up to the jail —

Photo of Fra McCann Fra McCann Sinn Féin 7:45 pm, 20th October 2009

I notice that the Member spoke about the Shankill end of west Belfast being very much part of north Belfast, but all the areas that he spoke about go into north Belfast. I spoke about both sides earlier on.

I have spoken to councillors, and the area around Union Street, North Street, Castle Street and Berry Street is totally derelict. We will get nowhere unless we start to deal with that.

Photo of Nelson McCausland Nelson McCausland DUP

I do not disagree. The route to the Shankill Road along North Street to Peter’s Hill is very depressing, and the area between North Street and Donegall Street requires significant development. There is the potential to do something, and there is no disagreement about that. I was simply saying that if we are trying to draw people from the Cathedral Quarter, which will become more of tourist attraction because of developments such as the metropolitan arts centre and the new hotels, the link-up to the Shankill Road has real strategic significance.

I picked up on Jennifer McCann’s point about the young lady from the Shankill Women’s Centre. One of the big challenges is to provide educational support in those areas. I have visited the Shankill Women’s Centre on a number of occasions, as have my party colleagues, and I am familiar with the marvellous job that it does to bring young women who may have missed out on education back into it. Such women may not have the confidence to engage with education providers, so, in that way, the centre does a valuable job.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Impact Training in Lanark Way, which also addresses the needs of young people who have gone through school without gaining qualifications and little in the way of job or life skills. Therefore, I commend Joe Stewart and the folk at Impact Training for their good work with those young people. There is a particular need, they have particular skills, and they do a very good job.

In all those ways, it is important to ensure that young and older people in the area have the skills to get jobs in areas such as tourism, where there is potential for growth. We should also be broad-minded enough to recognise that not all jobs will be in the immediate area. However, if young people have the job skills, life skills and confidence to go out and get jobs, they will be willing to go to other parts of the city. It is important that we do what we can to develop employment in the area and to ensure that people have the skills to get jobs there and elsewhere.

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

Even though the hour is late, this has been an incredibly useful exchange. I can assure Mr Attwood that, after the debate, I am going to a dinner with Chinese aviators, so I am not going home. Nevertheless, I thank him for securing the debate and for affording me the opportunity to address the issue.

I have listened with interest to Members’ points. I was going to detail the amount of assistance that Invest NI has given in the past seven years and what has happened with that funding, but I think that Members are fully aware of everything that has happened in west Belfast. Some Members said that the issue is one of perception, be that with Invest NI or with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. Therefore, at the outset of my response to Members, I want to say that I hope that that perception will change in the coming months and years.

We have already heard that Howard Hastings held an NITB board meeting in the Cultúrlann in west Belfast, and he regaled me with stories of people jumping out from behind gravestones. Nevertheless, the board members had a genuine engagement, and I think that they enjoyed their time and saw a lot when they were there. In addition, Alastair Hamilton has been proactive in engaging with West Belfast Members, and he will continue to do so. People say that it is not about whether he can talk the talk but whether he can walk the walk, so I hope that he will do that.

Mr Attwood was talking in code when he mentioned a particular employer, and I think that I know the employer to which he was referring. If it is the one that I am thinking of, I can assure the Member that things are going very well, and I hope that we will be able to do something about it in the near future. I will leave the code there.

Nelson referred to the cultural corridor from the centre of town, past St Patrick’s Church and up to Carlisle Memorial Methodist Church, which is a beautiful building that was recently put on a list of the most endangered buildings in the world.

Physical infrastructure has a key role. That was starkly obvious recently when the Department for Employment and Learning held a meeting about skills in the Europa Hotel, yet there was no one there from Sandy Row because the inhabitants did not think that the Europa was in a part of their area. I come from a rural background, and I find that incredible. I travel 14 or 15 miles into Enniskillen to attend my constituency office, and travelling such distances is normal for me as I live in a large constituency. It is significant that people have mindset problems to overcome. Ms McCann referred to having the appropriate skills to travel to different parts of the city. Physical infrastructure is important to enable people to do that, and improvements are being made so that people can go about the city.

There is also the issue of not being ghettoised, and I say that about the whole of Belfast as there are ghettos all across the city. I understand that people who live in the Markets did not apply for jobs in the Radisson SAS Hotel because they do not think of it as being in their part of Belfast. For me, that is significant, as it shows that people do not move around the city, which is a huge issue. Is it an issue for DETI? I am not sure that it is, but it is one that needs to be addressed right across the Government, which is a point that some Members made.

There is increasing evidence that tradable service projects are going to city centre locations. That is accepted. They offer access to a large and skilled labour pool and are within a reasonable travel-to-work area. However, will people travel out of their own areas for that work? That issue is closely related to aspiration. Mr McCann talked of the long-term unemployed, which is also a huge issue, as is the number of economically inactive people. Northern Ireland has the highest percentage of economically inactive people in the UK, and it gives me no satisfaction to say so. We need to consider those issues, but that is not something I alone can do; rather, it is something that must be addressed by the Executive as a whole. It is difficult for me, a person from a rural constituency, to understand why people in west Belfast cannot work in the city centre, but I am beginning to understand that more fully, and we need to deal with those issues.

As I said during the previous debate, the majority of the working residents of west Belfast are employed outside the constituency. Therefore, it is fair to assume that many people from that area will have positively benefited from the type of investments that we announced earlier in the week, because they are travelling to work.

It is also worth noting that, in the wider context, despite the constraints on Invest NI’s ability to influence the location decision of investors, a high proportion — about 53% — of assistance has been offered to businesses within designated areas of economic disadvantage.

Over the past few years, significant progress has been made in addressing many of the issues that were identified by the West Belfast and Greater Shankill task forces, and a subsequent bid for the integrated development fund has resulted in a substantive package of support for the area. I understand what Members said about there being too many strategies, too many ideas floating about and how it is time for action. However, 16 of the 17 projects included in the IDF bid have been completed or are in the process of being implemented. Mention was made of some of those, including the establishment of the West Belfast and Greater Shankill Enterprise Council, the implementation of a £1 million pilot social economy fund initiative, the extension to the facilities at the Whiterock Children’s Centre and the development of two new business units at Lanark Way.

A couple of Members mentioned the tourism issue, and the fact that west Belfast has benefited indirectly from Tourist Board assistance to tourism projects across the Belfast City Council area, and I put that in the context of what I said about the greater Belfast area. I take Alex Attwood’s point about hotels and the ban on the opening of hotels 10 miles or 20 miles outside the city centre. That point was made to me by Members representing East Antrim and Lagan Valley. Lagan Valley only recently received its first hotel, as Members are aware.

I am happy to look at that matter again, and I have no difficulty in doing so. However, it is something that Members need to look at with me. As Nelson McCausland said, we need to get more people to stay in those areas. The new brand issued by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board talks about authenticity and being real about our tourism. If we are to follow that through, then we need more accommodation — albeit, not hotels initially — in those areas, so that people who want to stay there have choice.

The social economy is a huge part of the economy in west Belfast. Nowhere is the contribution more evident than in west Belfast and greater Shankill, particularly in organisations such as the Colin Glen Trust, Farset International, and Ulster Sheltered Employment Ltd. Ms McCann referred to the Shankill Women’s Centre. I had the great privilege of visiting the centre and seeing the work that is going on there. It is incredible to see so many young children being looked after so expertly there, sometimes by their mothers who have taken qualifications and are doing very well because of that. Again, it is back to the issue of getting those young women, in that case, to have the aspiration to achieve that qualification and the support to do so. I was greatly encouraged when I saw what was happening in the Shankill, and indeed throughout the constituency.

I reassure Members that the Department, Invest Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board are committed to playing their part and will continue to work with clients and local partners to encourage further investment and employment opportunities to those living in areas such as west Belfast. I commented that we are working with a significant employer in the area already. We will continue to do that. It is important that we are as open as possible. I believe that we are getting to that stage, and, hopefully, we will be able to develop those relationships that may have been lacking in the past. I hope that having a devolved Administration means that we can have those relationships in a way in which we may not have been able to in the past, under direct rule Ministers.

In saying all of that, we have face up to the realities of modern business and competitive pressures. It was interesting that Mr Attwood opened by saying that the public sector has a role to play in relation to social clauses in public contracts. That is something that should be looked at. The Committee for Finance and Personnel is looking at the whole area of public procurement and, perhaps, social clauses can be looked at as part of that. I do not think that social clauses are possible in the private sector. However, if the public sector is playing a role, then it is something that public procurement and, particularly, the Department of Finance and Personnel can look at in particular areas.

I welcome the debate. If there is any issue that I have not addressed, I am happy to follow it up. It has been a hugely useful debate and I thank the Members for bringing it to the House.

Adjourned at 8.03 pm