By Kirsty McManus, National Director, Institute of Directors (IoD) Northern Ireland
Ask any business leader about what they consider to be their greatest barrier to growth, and you will receive a myriad of responses, but many will be repeated time and time again – among them, infrastructure, or should I say a lack of it?
Depressingly, there is nothing new in that. We all know that historically Northern Ireland has lagged behind its neighbours both on this island and in the rest of the United Kingdom, in terms of investment in infrastructure.
The reasons behind that are for another column, but there is a growing acceptance that something is wrong and it needs to be addressed.
Frankly, we are at a crucial juncture. Do nothing and our competitive disadvantage will only worsen. Given that here, as in regions across the globe, we are battling our way out of the pandemic, this is something we can ill afford.
Of course, there’s no quick fix. What is required is a longer term strategy designed to deliver infrastructure that is in the best interests of our economy and society as a whole.
It was very welcome therefore to hear the recent call from Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon who said the time was now right for the introduction of an independent body to look at the issue.
Last year, I was honoured to have been tasked by the Minister to chair an advisory panel which consulted widely on the matter.
We talked to more than 100 key infrastructure stakeholders from construction, banking, utilities, investors, and with other infrastructure commissions across the globe, gathering a pool of evidence.
Our conclusion, consultees were overwhelmingly in support of an independent infrastructure commission as our best opportunity to secure the longer term vision required helping us to turbocharge infrastructure that would deliver cleaner, greener, sustainable and inclusive growth.
It means better roads, waterways and public transport – all designed to meet the needs of a modern and evolving economy and society.
Above all, we must be ambitious. We should all be united in a desire to see this place, our business and our people flourish.
The UK Infrastructure Bank will have £12 billion at its disposal to accelerate investment in infrastructure and will be able to provide a further £10bn of loan guarantees.
An Infrastructure Commission can help us ensure that Northern Ireland takes a piece of that pie. More importantly it allows us to tap into infrastructure experts that can provide the brainpower to boost our infrastructure and provides a pathway to the well of private capital available.
We’re playing catchup but there’s no point in creating infrastructure that simply papers over the cracks or puts a sticking plaster over an aging problem.
We need to build innovative infrastructure and transport systems for the future taking cognisance of the changing ways in which people operate, go about their daily lives, and think about their impact on the world (greener and more sustainable solutions are key).
We’ve made our case, now it’s up to those in power to take action.