Economic Development in West Belfast

Part of Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 7:45 pm on 20th October 2009.

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Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP 7:45 pm, 20th October 2009

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