Stormont’s spending plans - why our city deserves better

Colum Eastwood MLA
Colum Eastwood MLA

Plans and strategies have gotten a bad name. It’s the classic case of familiarity breeding contempt. There are just so many, too many. Far too often these plans and strategies are produced and then placed on the government shelf for show. Little or no real action follows the fanfare of their publication and release. They’re more a tool of presentation than a tool of productivity.

Last week the Executive launched the North’s 10 year Investment Strategy. This Plan contains the roadmap and vision by which the Executive wish to sustain, reconfigure and expand upon our current economic and social framework. As plans and strategies go it’s a big deal, or at least it should be.

In comparison to many of the initiatives emanating from our devolved institution at Stormont, its general principles are relatively sound. It talks of rebalancing our private and public sectors, acknowledges the continued need for infrastructural improvement and recognises the need to simultaneously utilise and protect our environment. By anyone’s estimation, be they seasoned economist or Joe Public, these all represent common sense pathways to a sustainable recovery.

Again though, the devil of the detail is cause for concern for myself and the people of this city. The proven regional inequalities here require specific solutions. This city has the highest level of unemployment in the North (8.7%) and one of the highest rates of economic inactivity (43%).

Last year, in my maiden speech to the Assembly, I asserted that for far too long Derry has been at the heart of Ireland’s history but at the fringe of its economic expansion. I am increasingly worried that, even within the new context of stable and devolved government, this historical injustice is continuing to be either ignored or meekly accepted by Stormont‘s leadership.

The Investment Strategy, despite assuring that ‘Balanced growth and tackling regional imbalance are critical issues’, fails to give concrete policy commitments to back up this statement.

Let’s take three examples.

Firstly, it is now uniformly accepted that a major expansion of Magee, to incorporate 10,000 students, is not only a matter of regional equality but an economic imperative. The Investment Strategy contains no commitment for this. Secondly, more than 3,000 people sit on our social housing lists waiting for a decent home for themselves and their families. The Programme for Government only commits to the development of 8,000 social and affordable homes across the entire North. This city’s need will not be met by this Investment Plan either. Thirdly, as highlighted once more in this paper last Friday, Invest NI’s record in attracting inward investment to this city has come up short, time and time again. The jobs simply aren’t here. There is no commitment in this Investment Strategy to ensure the political priority that INI is given a policy direction in order to spread multinational jobs on a fair and regional basis. There is the inevitable danger that if Stormont’s leadership continue in their failure to address these issues, any recovery in the next number of years will only be felt an hour and half up the road.

Our devolved institutions need to prove themselves capable of taking ownership of our economic plight. Of course Westminster control many of our fiscal levers. I understand this, as does the general public. This, however, can either be used as a convenient excuse to do nothing or used as a challenge to do as much as we possibly can.

Just as the uncertainty of the times demands resolute leadership, the uncertainty of economic markets demand political intervention. This is not based on ideological choice but on basic governmental imperative. It ultimately defines the challenge and choice at hand.

This city and region, its economy and its people, cannot afford another forgotten plan on a forgotten shelf.