Belfast Manifesto

Oral Answers to Questions — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 26th September 2016.

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Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance 2:45 pm, 26th September 2016

1. Ms Bradshaw asked the Minister for the Economy how he plans to work with the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce on the implementation of its 'Belfast Manifesto: Our Vision for the Future'. (AQO 309/16-21)

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I welcome Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce's 'Belfast Manifesto' and share its vision to make Belfast a world-class city. The publication of this document is timely, as my Department is taking forward the refocus of the Executive's economic strategy, which will recognise the importance of cities as drivers of economic growth. We will work closely with the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce and other key stakeholders and listen to businesses and their representatives as we seek to develop and implement the strategy. My Department will work closely with all relevant organisations, including the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce, throughout the development and implementation of the Programme for Government and economic strategy to ensure that Belfast develops as a city and Northern Ireland develops as a region.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

Thank you for your answer. What discussions has the Minister had to secure more money as a proportion of the overall Executive budget for skills to continue to address a skills shortage, as referenced in the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce's manifesto?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

Skills is an incredibly important issue for the Northern Ireland economy. One thing that I am increasingly aware of in this job, particularly when we are making job announcements, as we did last week for another 94 jobs based in the city, is that Northern Ireland's skill offering is one of the things that differentiates us and sets us apart from other regions that we are competing with. Interestingly, in the conversation that I had with Metaswitch last week, I found that the differentiator for it locating here rather than somewhere else was the Assured Skills programme that we have in place, which has been incredibly successful in promoting over 5,600 jobs since 2011. That is where we work with foreign direct investors, or indeed existing investors and indigenous firms, to ensure that they get the skills pipeline that they require.

The Member has identified an issue around funding. I am sure that every Minister who comes to the House has issues and pressures in respect of elements of their budget. I know that the skills budget has been under pressure in the last number of years. If we are to maintain our primary position and that ability to attract inward investment to grow our economy, we need to focus much of those precious resources on ensuring that the skills of our workforce are in place and that the skills of those coming through our universities, colleges and schools are up to scratch and fit for the workplace.

It is an incredibly important area. My Department faces a lot of challenges in a whole range of different areas, and I see skills as incredibly important. We attract people to Northern Ireland on the basis of our skills. We know that we are not the biggest economy in the world. We do not have the biggest market. We do not have a lot of natural resources. Our best resource is our people. That is what attracts people to these shores, and I want that to remain the case.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Will the Minister commit to continuing to work in the time ahead with the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce, which has many laudable objectives and great work behind it, and make sure that the Department's investments are put into the city as a whole, so that communities that heretofore have not really benefited as well as they might will do so and Belfast can become a fairer city as well as a stronger city and economy?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I am happy to confirm to the Member that I am happy to work with the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce. I have not met it formally in this role, although I had a good relationship with it in the past, and I want to keep that good relationship going in my current post. Whether it is refocusing our economic strategy or developing our economy as a whole, it is incredibly important that I and my Department have good relationships with all the relevant organisations, of which the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce is obviously one, particularly in developing the city.

The Member will know that I have spoken, including at the Committee last week, about how, yes, we need to grow our economy — our economy is heading in the right direction, and we see a lot of good data coming through, particularly around unemployment and economic inactivity — but that growth has to be inclusive growth. The new Programme for Government points to the need to have a strong regionally balanced economy. That is something that I believe in, and I know that the Member is particularly concerned about that in respect of his constituency.

Sometimes the perception is that certain parts of the city or the Province do less well from investment, but, interestingly, in the past five years, there have been 93 start-ups per 10,000 head of the population in the West Belfast constituency. That points to a good entrepreneurial spirit among the people of West Belfast. That compares with an 83 average across the whole of Northern Ireland. It is better than the Northern Ireland average and is the sixth-highest constituency in the UK. That has received support from Invest NI, and helping business start-ups is now in the hands of councils. Getting regionally balanced and inclusive growth is incredibly important to me and to the Executive as a whole, and we will focus on that over the remainder of this term.

Photo of Sammy Douglas Sammy Douglas DUP

The previous question was about the Belfast chamber. One of its objectives, in its manifesto, is to turn Belfast into a tech city. Could the Minister outline to the Chamber what progress he thinks Belfast has made in this regard?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I thank the Member for his question. There is a real developing sense that Belfast is a hub for digital and tech jobs. In fact, the whole of Northern Ireland is developing that relationship. Perhaps Belfast is the anchor for that. You see that in lots of different ways. You see it in the fact that we are attracting, in terms of inward investment, a lot of jobs in that digital and tech space. I mentioned Metaswitch, which brought 94 jobs in the telecommunications sector, some of which are in tech support. Interestingly, a significant number of those jobs are in research and development. It is really good that Northern Ireland is able to attract that type of work. Recently, I announced 17 jobs in Belfast for a company called BDNA, which is a California/Silicon Valley-based firm that is coming to Northern Ireland to have a presence here because it sees this as a good place to invest because of the skills of our workforce.

As well as attracting those sorts of jobs, we are developing a reputation. The Member will know that, sometimes, as the reputation develops, it gathers momentum. For example, this week, the BBC tech week highlighted Belfast as one of the UK's digital tech hubs. It highlights specialisms that we have in software development, and, of course, we are Europe's leading destination for software development. It also highlights our ongoing good work in the area of cybersecurity. Yes, it points to our FDI but also to our excellent local firms like Kainos, which are putting us on the world map. That follows on from a report by Tech City UK, a 'Tech Nation' report for 2016, which, again, highlights Northern Ireland as a growing digital cluster and talks about our tech industries making the highest contribution to GVA in the local economy in the whole of the UK with the exception of London and the south-east.

Our excellent talent, our infrastructure, our low overheads and government support are helping to put Belfast and the whole of Northern Ireland on the international map as a tech hub. I think that something really special is happening, and we need to make the most of that.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

I remind the Minister of the two-minute rule.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

Could I press the Minister? As you know, there are many voices in Belfast, in the chamber of commerce and in the council, pressing for the devolution of regeneration powers. That idea was derailed in the last mandate. That is not within your gift, but, as part of the Programme for Government, are you committed to and will you argue with the Minister for Communities and your Executive colleagues for the devolution of regeneration powers to councils?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

The Minister for Communities was just in the House. The Member was not in the House for his questions. He might have been in for an earlier part of it. I suggest to the Member that it is a question better directed to that Minister. I think that regeneration powers should be devolved to councils, but it obviously needs to be done in a way that enables them to take those powers on and make the most of them. We want our cities and our council areas to grow, develop and move forward, and regeneration powers are at the heart of being able to do that, but I will leave it to the Minister for Communities to decide the right time to do that. I am sure that he will work very closely with his colleagues in local government to ensure that that can happen in a timely fashion.

Photo of Robin Newton Robin Newton Speaker

Before I call Mr Storey for his question, I inform the House that question 3 has been withdrawn.