Photo of empty office space at Claremont Business Centre on the Northland Road
A well-known local businessman has criticised Invest NI over its lack of interest in Derry which is forcing skilled young people to Belfast in search of jobs.
It comes after Invest NI figures for the 2018/19 year were recently revealed showing that there were 278 visits (87%) to Belfast, compared to just six (2%) in the Foyle constituency and a meagre two visits in East Derry.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space remains unoccupied around the city.
Invest NI is Northern Ireland's regional economic development agency. It is a non-departmental public body of the Department for the Economy (DfE) tasked with selling different parts of the country to inward investors.
Local businessman Brendan Duddy Jnr, of The Duddy Group, believes the agency has focused too much on Belfast and ‘neglected’ other parts of the country as a result.
The Duddy Group has a portfolio of hotel and property investments in Derry and Dublin.
Mr Duddy commented: “It is no wonder the 212 bus is always full of people as they’re all travelling to Belfast for work.
“How is there going to be investment in Derry when the government’s own investment agency does not bring companies or potential investors to the city,” he said.
“They do not treat Northern Ireland the same, the second city got a total of six visits. How can that be considered fair or equal?”
He went on to say that the last time he met with someone from Invest NI was around three years ago despite having a building, Claremont Business Centre, ready for occupation.
The historic Claremont building, a former church, is situated at a central location opposite Ulster University’s Magee Campus on the Northland Road.
Mr Duddy explained: “Invest NI calls about a visit but when it comes to the day they end up cancelling the appointment and say they’ll show the investors photos instead.
“The building has been sitting empty, it has all of the technology, air conditioning and other features in place that businesses are looking for.”
Other businessmen in the city have expressed similar views, he said, and are sitting with modern office space ‘ready to go’.
“Invest NI needs to say Belfast is successful, now it’s time to invest in Derry. We need regional targets.
“We need to ask why our skilled young people are leaving schools like St. Joseph’s, St. Mary’s and St. Columb’s College and going to Belfast to work.
“Targets need to be set in stone and budgets need to be split equally between Belfast, Derry and other parts of NI.
“Their hand needs to be forced, and they have to be told, what you’re doing isn’t working. It’s supposed to be equal, but it’s neither equal or fair as it stands,” Mr Duddy added.
Above: The outside of the Claremont building opposite Ulster University's Magee Campus on the Northland Road
When questioned about its limited number of visits to Derry, Invest NI said what is ‘more relevant’ is that nearly 40% of investors chose to locate their project outside of Belfast.
The majority of inward visits begin with a meeting at its Belfast Headquarters as most investors arrive in Belfast off a flight, or the train.
Invest NI said investors only have a short number of hours, and in those cases it might invite key stakeholders, such as representatives from councils and colleges, to meet with the company at its HQ.
While the company might be considering a location outside Belfast, the visit itself is logged under ‘Belfast visits’, a spokesperson stated. “For this reason, the number of visits to Belfast might seem disproportionally high.”
Mr Duddy’s concerns were put to Invest NI regarding inadequate investment and cancelled visits in the past number of years.
In response, a spokesperson said: “Over the past five years Invest NI has offered £64million of support to businesses in the Derry City & Strabane District Council area.
“This support will contribute to £359million of investment for the local area. Investments such as: 256 jobs being created by Alchemy Technology Services; 305 jobs being created by Fintru; 67 jobs by Danske Bank; and a £12million investment and 100 jobs by Terex Corporation.
“We also work closely with Derry City & Strabane District Council supporting it to develop and deliver its Economic Development plan, and providing funding for programmes such as the ‘BIG’ Programme, launched last week, which aims to create 550 jobs over the next three years.”
When asked if it intends to support sub-regional investment moving forward, Invest NI said it is ‘fully committed’ to supporting the NI Executive to deliver this, and any future, Programme for Government.
SDLP MLA Sinead McLaughlin said she’s heard numerous similar stories from business people based in Derry.
“If investors are coming in and their destination is Belfast and they’re not taken out to see the other regions then their view of Northern Ireland in terms of the economy is predominantly the Belfast view, it’s as simple as that.
“And in a way it’s lazy, it’s not like I’ll show you a picture of a house or office, that is not how investors make decisions, based on a photograph.
“We’ve made one place the centre of the economy and everyone else has to drive into it – there’s nothing balanced in that.”
She added: "Derry has more than 8% of Northern Ireland's population, but only 5% of the jobs created with Invest NI support. That is despite high levels of deprivation and the worst unemployment and economic inactivity in Northern Ireland.
“That demonstrates Derry needs the jobs most. The current situation is unfair, unacceptable and must change. That is why the SDLP is demanding outcomes that reverse the past and continuing regional imbalance.
"By comparison, Belfast has 18% of the population of Northern Ireland and 30% of the jobs - and an even higher proportion of the new jobs obtained with Invest NI support. That leads to very high levels of commuting into Belfast - which this week was found to have the worst congestion of any city in the UK other than London.
“Northern Ireland needs jobs and investment spread across all regions. Invest NI should be at the heart of a strategy to achieve this. Sadly, at present, it is not doing enough to spread the investment."
The Foyle MLA was adamant that Invest NI targets and requirements must be included in the new programme for government.
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