By Kirsty McManus, National Director, Institute of Directors (IoD) Northern Ireland
It is often said that ‘all politics is local’ meaning that the success of any politician is dependent on keeping their roots firmly embedded among their constituents – and the same is certainly true for leading businesses.
In Northern Ireland, we are fortunate that our economy stretches well beyond Belfast, with many of our most important industries such as the manufacturing, food processing and pharmaceutical sectors concentrated throughout other regional centres.
This was evidenced just last week with the very welcome announcement by financial services firm FinTrU that it plans to create more than 600 jobs, including 305 in Derry.
Creating employment and business opportunities in provincial towns and cities, the firms – many of which are globally recognised names in their respective markets – succeed with the support of strong network of council authorities.
The role played by the local government sector in promoting entrepreneurship and commercial development at a sub-regional level is key, and increased planning powers granted to councils over recent years have further enhanced their position as a stakeholder for the local business community.
A recent report commissioned by the Northern Ireland Local Government Agency (Nilga) called for those powers to be boosted further, saying more decision making should be devolved to councils.
According to the study, which was compiled by the New Policy Institute, local authorities in Northern Ireland administer around £738 million of public funds per year, or about 4 per cent of the total Northern Ireland budget.
The proportion is significantly at odds with regions in other parts of the UK with councils in Scotland and Wales taking charge of 27 per cent of overall public funding.
Nilga argued that devolving more powers to local councils could go some way to unplugging the current gap in political decision making. This has been caused by the absence of the Northern Ireland Executive, which, were it up and running would be responsible for 88 per cent of public spending – more than double that of the corresponding bodies in Scotland and Wales, according to the research.
And while there is no argument against ensuring as many decisions as possible that affect local people should be made at a local level, exactly which powers, if any, should be transferred (the New Policy Institute suggests local highways and transport, cultural and related services, environment, regulation, planning and regeneration, plus business and skills development) would be a matter of some debate.
What isn’t up for debate, however, is the crucial function performed by local councils in their existing form to foster better business relationships, encourage stakeholder engagement, and demonstrate good governance.
To that end, many chief executives of local councils are active members of the IoD and we value that relationship as we seek to engage with our core membership which also stretches into all parts of Northern Ireland.
Later this month, we will be staging the first of our new series of Chairman’s Roadshows in Derry before going visiting council areas across Northern Ireland, including Armagh and Newry in August.
Taking place at Magee Campus, the event on 19th July will hear from John Kelpie, Chief Executive of Derry City and Strabane District Council and David Sterling, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
It will provide an ideal platform for local business leaders to share their expertise and learn best practice from their peers and civic leaders. Working in partnership with councils and local businesses, we aim to ensure we maintain the strength of our regional economy, keeping it at the heart of the Northern Ireland success story.