Local councillors have harshly criticised Invest NI for its lack of focus on the North West and said that to reverse “decades of neglect” it needs to “positively discriminate” in Derry’s favour.
On Tuesday, Invest NI Chief Executive Kevin Holland and Regional Executive Director, Alan McKeown, and Executive Director International Business, Steve Harper, appeared before a special meeting of Derry City & Strabane District Council’s Business and Culture Committee.
In a presentation they outlined that for every £1 of Invest NI support results in £6 of investment. Over past five years employment in Invest NI supported businesses has increased by 21% - 102,761 to 124,462.
“We provide extensive support to all businesses including advice, guidance and financial assistance covering business start ups, skills development, export guidance and innovation,” they explained.
“Our intensive support delivers high returns to the NI economy. The companies we work closest with account for 30% of NI turnover, 23% of employees, 74% of external sales and 73% of exports.”
The report said 74% of offers made to companies outside Belfast, 67% of jobs created outside Belfast and 56% of planned investment outside Belfast.
And Invest NI offered more assistance per employee to customers located in Derry City & Strabane DCA than anywhere else in NI - £1,094 per employee compared to a Northern Ireland average of £744.
Representatives said they want to keep talent in local communities to create “socially vibrant areas” and they will work with all eleven councils to achieve that.
The Derry and Strabane council area has been given £64m of assistance and 106 businesses have been supported in the region, according to the report.
However, Invest NI representatives were taken to task by local councillors who made it clear that Derry and Strabane have suffered from “decades of neglect” and are in need of “positive discrimination” in order to grow.
SDLP Councillor Rory Farrell said he would be doing the local public a disservice if he didn’t challenge the figures presented.
He produced several documents published by Invest NI aimed at promoting the region to international investors. In one “Belfast was mentioned nine times and Derry was not mentioned at all.”
Referring to a comment made in the presentation about Derry being NI’s second city, he said another document called Think NI mentioned Belfast 21 times and Derry once. “It has a lovely photo of Derry but the caption talks about the Citigroup – which is based in Belfast.
“We view Derry and Strabane as very important, we would be forgiven for thinking Invest NI is not promoting the region properly. That is what you’re promoting to foreign direct investors.”
He said that to the untrained eye figures would appear impressive but jobs created rank sixth in terms of council areas – “that’s not good enough.”
Sales of £868m ranks ninth out of eleven council areas and sales to GB ranks tenth overall. “There is seven times the amount of FDI business in Belfast,” Cllr Farrell.
Out of all council areas, Derry and Strabane ranks last in terms of wages with an average wage of £18,500. Further examples were provided showing how Derry rates badly in other metrics.
“There have been decades of neglect, the university needs to be a lot bigger. There is multi-generational unemployment and we are way down the pecking order.”
He pressed Invest NI on how they will instil public confidence because many people view it as “Invest Belfast” and suggested “a PR campaign is needed to get people in this city on board”.
The SDLP representative for Ballyarnett said serious attention is needed to address unemployment, wage growth, an east-west divide and asked how they will address these disparities.
In response, recently appointed Chief Executive Kevin Holland, said they need to promote the “uniqueness” of each area and in Derry that could be the cross-border potential.
Addressing the panel of representatives, Sinn Féin Councillor Mickey Cooper said he was the one to request the special meeting with Invest NI. Small and medium enterprises are the lifeblood of the council area, he said, as well as research and development at the university “although it is too small”.
Derry lost its textiles industry which left a “massive gap” in the economy. The case has to be made in strong terms to the Department for the Economy, he added.
Recalling the previous answer provided by Invest NI to Cllr Farrell, he commented: “I was hoping for more specific answers. It’s not good enough, there needs to be a sub-regional strategy, this is the second city in NI and the economic driver in the NW.
“We are a special case, we need to reverse the trend and turn this oil tanker sized problem around.”
Cllr Cooper said there were zero FDI visits last year which “doesn’t encourage me in the slightest”, adding that it’s not just about visits but “positively discriminating for this region”.
“The employment and unemployment figures are chronic, it won’t change overnight but zero visits won’t help.”
Recognising that the representatives in the room aren’t long in their roles, he went on to say, “we’ll start from scratch but this can’t go on, a very specialist approach is needed.”
In response, Steve Harper, Executive Director International Business, said he’s not sure where the zero visits figure came from and assured Cllr Cooper there will be a “renewed focus on the NW”.
“Getting companies to invest in NI, let alone the NW is a challenge,” he added.
Regional Executive Director Alan McKeown told the meeting that commitments in the New Decade New Approach document and City Deal would provide unique selling points.
DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney agreed with comments made by other members of the committee saying there is an east-west divide and this part of the North West is “crying out for investment”.
It would be worth getting clarity around the number of visits, he said, and believed work on the A5 and A6 road would eliminate some of the old criticisms about a lack of infrastructure in the NW.
Independent Councillor for the Sperrin ward Raymond Barr asked what the “biggest obstacle” was to attracting investment in the NW. He was told that investors are in search of skills and Invest NI continues to work with NWRC and Ulster University’s (UU) Magee campus to produce talent.
Aontú Councillor Anne McCloskey who was chairing the meeting concluded by reminding Invest NI that “neglect” of UU’s Magee campus has been ongoing for decades.
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