29/05/2018

NI Business Group Call For Action From Karen Bradley

A group of Northern Ireland-based businesses have issued a number of "proposed practical solutions to ensure decisions crucial to the prosperity of the region can continue to be taken".

A number of organisations have joined forces to write to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, to ask her to consider implementing special legislative measures that restore stable governance by temporarily empowering senior civil servants to make crucial day-to-day decisions.

The call has been made collectively by CBI NI, Construction Employers Federation (CEF), NI Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Quarry Products Association NI (QPANI), Manufacturing NI, Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association (NIFDA), Retail NI, NI Retail Consortium & the Freight Transport Association.

The groups said that for more than a year, businesses and individuals across Northern Ireland have engaged with Executive departments to request policy direction, make important tendering and procurement decisions, and decide regionally significant planning applications.

The recent Belfast High Court judgement on the Arc21 Incinerator has however called into question the ability of the civil service to continue to exercise these duties, not just on planning and infrastructure decisions, but across a range of policy areas.

Other key projects put at risk by this judgement include the North-South Interconnector, A5 upgrade, Belfast Power Station, and the £150 million ultra-fast Broadband project – each of vital importance to the NI business community.

The statement from the business group, continued: "The Business Community recognises that the Department for Infrastructure has appealed the High court's decision. However, given the importance of avoiding a lengthy period of decision-making uncertainty, the group believes the merits of two potential legislative solutions should also be considered in the meantime:
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1. Temporarily amend 'The Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999' Section 4.(1) to allow Permanent Secretaries to make decisions in the absence of a Minister until devolution is restored as per Section 4 (3) of the Order. This option could be undertaken at the same time as re-establishing NI Assembly Statutory Committees to provide additional scrutiny and transparency.

And

2. Focusing on infrastructure planning decisions only, extend the existing decision-making powers of the Planning Appeals Commission to incorporate 'Regionally Significant' planning applications."

Adrian Doran, Chair of the CBI NI Infrastructure Forum said: "The business community's overwhelming priority remains the return of an inclusive devolved government. But without a political resolution in sight, it is only right that we request that the Secretary of State explore all alternative options. Policy paralysis is not acceptable, and we must all look for ways to remove the current handbrake on local economic and social progress. Both businesses and individuals deserve to have access to the basic everyday governance that is offered in all other regions.

"Last week's incinerator decision exposed the fragility of current decision-making arrangements in the absence of Ministers. The longer this uncertainty presides over local infrastructure decisions, the greater the risk to jobs and investment. Northern Ireland cannot be left in a decision-making limbo indefinitely."

Ann McGregor, Chief Executive of Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry, added: "It is becoming more and more difficult to see how the Northern Ireland economy can develop and businesses prosper without having the necessary functions of government in place. There is no sign of Stormont being restored, there are no Ministers in place to take vital decisions on critical issues and it now appears that no policy decisions of significance can be taken legally by senior civil servants.

"Northern Ireland's credibility as a place in which to do business is suffering intolerably because of the political impasse.  We need the return of a functioning local executive and a Ministerial team focused on helping the Northern Ireland economy to flourish. In the meantime, the proposals put forward by business groups today outline potential solutions that should be considered - too much time is being wasted and time is of the essence."

(MH/LM)

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