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The cross-sector advisory forum met in the Long Gallery on 7 October. That was the third plenary session since April. Over the summer, the forum’s subgroups worked on a substantial range of issues aimed at generating ideas for mitigating the problems arising from the economic crisis. An update of the work of each subgroup was given to the forum, and we asked each group to submit a recommendations paper to us. We plan to review and evaluate those, and we intend to produce a consolidated report for the next meeting.
The meeting of 7 October also included useful sessions about what we are doing to help people who have recently lost their jobs and how we can best help people who are unemployed to get into work. We also heard from local government representatives about what that sector is doing to support local businesses and people through the crisis. We continue to pay close attention to the impact of the recession on the local economy, and that continues to be a standing item on the agenda of Executive meetings.
The work of the forum is a key element in our response, and it provides us with an opportunity to gather further ideas on our best approach to dealing with the local impacts of the recession and, ultimately, resolving the crisis.
I certainly hope that over the course of the next short while, the group will come forward with recommendations. We have charged it with the responsibility to do that, and the subgroups worked over the summer to draw up recommendations in each of their respective areas to address the downturn.
Six subgroups have been established. The infrastructure group is looking at the out-turn of the capital spend of £1·7 billion. It is also looking at future capital work opportunities, which are now posted on the Strategic Investment Board (SIB) information portal to allow the construction industry to better plan business. It is also looking at planning reform, which is out for public consultation and includes proposals for reforms of the pre-consultation planning process, whereby applicants can talk to officials before submitting their plans, thus avoiding obvious impediments and, ultimately, shortening the planning process.
The business and skills group is considering three areas: economic regeneration, exports and manufacturing. There is a list of recommendations, including maintaining support for construction, improving awareness of export support schemes and improving awareness of government business support schemes.
The group on hardship, poverty, debt and energy is dealing with access to prepayment meters, awareness of the “green new deal”, bulk fuel purchase, gas boiler conversion, extension of the gas network, domestic renewables, awareness of benefits, financial advice for consumers, and so on.
The agriculture group is dealing with such issues as the opportunities for renewable energy, how the demand side of the equation could be stimulated and how public procurement might be deployed in that regard.
The banking and finance group is looking at how the national asset management agency will operate. That is a core issue for the group. It has also considered how lending to business could be improved, and it has considered options to support the housing market and mortgage holders.
The housing group is considering how to stabilise house prices, including assessing the downside of too much government intervention, which can push up prices, and other proposals.
I hope that, in the next short while, we will receive the groups’ proposals. They will be brought together in a paper that we will make available to Members.
I thank the deputy First Minister for that detailed response. In an earlier response, he mentioned local government. What help and assistance can he give local government, other than the streamlining of planning applications? It must be more than that. What advice has local government been given? What resources have been set aside to assist local government? How does OFMDFM intend to ask local government to help the economy and the people who come here looking for jobs?
The issue is not the advice that we have given local government. Obviously, we seek to hear the views of different interest groups that we meet on how we should go forward with regard to their particular responsibilities.
In one of our meetings, a NILGA (Northern Ireland Local Government Association) representative gave us a detailed report on the work in which the association is engaged. I will not go into the detail of that because it would take too long. We await with considerable interest groups’ suggestions on how to take our business forward and on how we can help them.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Tá ceist agam don LeasChéad Aire. An dtig leis an LeasChéad Aire míniú dúinn cad é atá déanta ag an Choiste Feidhmiúcháin agus ag a Oifig féin le déileáil leis an mheathlú geilleagair agus leis na fadhbanna eacnamaíocha atá againn?
I thank the deputy First Minister for outlining what the Executive and OFMDFM are doing to address the economic downturn. I ask the First Minister — sorry, deputy First Minister — [Interruption.] — has OFMDFM been able to communicate that effectively to wider society?
Go raibh maith agat as an cheist sin.
Following the global financial crisis, which took hold in September 2008, Invest NI has seen growing uncertainty in the market. Companies increasingly focus on cost containment, indicating that they are deferring investment decisions and reviewing business strategies. As a result, the pipeline of new foreign direct investment prospects is not as strong as it was in 2008. Recently, however, there have been indications of an upturn in interest. Invest NI has seen an increase in inward business activity.
There have also been several significant investment announcements recently. Just a few weeks ago, the First Minister and I were particularly pleased to welcome the top management team of the New York Stock Exchange to Belfast to announce one of the biggest US investments in Europe this year, with a planned opening of a new state-of-the-art development facility in Belfast next year. That will result in the creation of up to 400 new technical, operational and corporate jobs, including 75 positions from a prior agreement.
No one should doubt the scale and significance of that announcement, which is a major endorsement of local talent, knowledge and infrastructure. When such a high-profile institution decides to invest here, it sends out a clear message to other potential investors. Over the past two years, I, along with the First Minister and his predecessor, Ian Paisley, have had ongoing engagement with staff at the highest level in the stock exchange, which, to our delight, led to that announcement.
In March 2009, the First Minister and I went to Los Angeles to meet representatives of Universal Pictures and HBO. Universal Pictures has since completed a film at the Paint Hall in Belfast, and HBO has now moved in. That has created hundreds of new jobs for people in the joinery trade and the creative arts.
Members will also be aware that the US Administration appointed Declan Kelly as economic envoy in September 2009. Mr Kelly has been relentless in his task. We are delighted that our close relationship with the US Administration resulted in that high-profile and productive appointment.