That old familiar feeling of more lip service than promise . . .

Lorna Cowan Blog

I went back to Stormont for the first time in a few years the other week for the launch of Trade NI’s Vision 2030 manifesto. It was a typically slick and effective job from Stephen Kelly, Glyn Roberts and Colin Neil. The host Ministers and MLAs were out in force doing their jobs too. It was good to see, though I had a nagging and unfortunately familiar feeling that this was more lip service than promise. I tend to get that feeling quite a bit when it comes to business representatives asking challenging questions of politicians and ‘the system’ here, though it’s important to stay as positive as possible.

This week then we have the prospect of our finance minister, Conor Murphy going to Westminster in the search for more money to fund the many projects that were outlined in our new, founding document, New Decade, New Approach. In business terms, New Decade, New Approach would be regarded as a fantasy wish list bearing no resemblance to a genuine business plan where revenues, at the very least, cover costs. Still, political documents like that aren’t business plans and the public sector is very different from the private sector so, in my view, it is right and proper that such a document should contain aspirational projects for which the money needs to be found. Vision is an important part of political leadership after all.

What does cause me continuing angst though is a pervading culture which is more about seeking a handout to fund those aspirations rather than a greater focus on genuine revenue creation. In our work, we are lucky enough to see projects coming here at quite an early stage of development and part of our job is to get those projects momentum and support. Some of these projects, genuinely, are worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the economy here. This is new, private sector, investment. And yet, many of those investors get frustrated pretty quickly when they try to get their projects up and running.

Often, it’s the complexity which causes the problem. Councils, different departments and arms-length agencies may all be in the mix (think Casement Park for instance) and getting timely co-ordination of them all is often a huge problem. What can the private sector do? Well, it can push, cajole, finance and network solutions and routes to quicker, more efficient and better decision making. There are many ways in which this can happen but I’m very glad to see that the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce, under the leadership of its President, Rajesh Rana and still relatively new-to-post Chief Executive, Simon Hamilton, is looking at what we can learn from best practice elsewhere as part of the solution to a stronger economy and a more coherent and happier society in the regional economic driver that is Belfast.

This week, nearly four hundred people will gather for Belfast Chamber’s ‘BelFastForward’ conference. The celebrated urban thinker, Vishaan Chakrabarti (I have his book,’ A Country of Cities’ in the little MCE library in the office) is coming in from New York as is Rob Walsh, who worked for Mayor Bloomberg. The innovative Green Party, former Vice Mayor of Vienna, Maria Vassilakou, is also coming into Belfast bringing her experience of the sustainable urban development policies which have seen Vienna top the list of global cities with the best quality of life for its residents.

These international speakers will be joined by just about every significant public and private sector player in Belfast. The aim being to learn and network new and better ways of delivering a more efficient and successful city. And while jobs and economic growth has a huge part to play in that, so does brilliant public transport, fair and decent quality housing, cultural vitality and great education and healthcare. That is not an easy cocktail to get right though if the key players in all of those sectors can work better together, real progress is possible.  As Chamber President, Rajesh Rana says: The conference will celebrate all that is good in Belfast but will also challenge delegates to find better ways of working together. Our speakers bring experience of what has worked and what has failed in other cities and we are looking forward to learning from their expertise. We want Belfast to be a city of international significance, where people choose to live, work, visit, study and where companies decide to invest. Belfast is an utterly transformed city, but we know there is potential to achieve so much more.”

Let’s hope Thursday’s conference provides good signposts and new potential routes for success, not all of which require handouts of public money to pay for them.

*BelFastForward, February 27th, see for more details.

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