A new initiative involving an unprecedented level of cross-border co-operation could drive down unemployment levels across Derry, Donegal and Strabane to the national average or even below it for the first time ever, Derry’s council chief has said.
John Kelpie was speaking as details were announced of a new North West ‘city-region’ partnership involving the two councils, educational institutes, Chambers of Commerce, local businesses and communities across the area all working together like never before.
The details were confirmed at a post-Brexit conference jointly staged by Derry City & Strabane District Council and Donegal County Council at An Grianan Hotel in Burt on Wednesday.
During the event, experts from across Ireland honed in on the conference theme of ‘Driving Growth in the North West with the Challenges and Opportunities of Brexit’.
The partnership work already undertaken by the two Councils, it emerged, has now led to the establishment of a new North West Strategic Partnership, bringing together, for the first time, senior figures within both the Irish and Northern Irish governments and local Council representatives among others to focus solely on the needs of the North West region following the Brexit vote. The new partnership is expected to hold its first meeting on Thursday.
A major scoping exercise, which was jointly triggered by the Councils on June 24, the morning the Brexit vote was announced, meanwhile, is already well underway and has been tasked to gather research and statistics as well as the opinions, worries and ideas of local people and businesses in Derry, Donegal and Strabane ahead of the UK leaving the European Union.
Speaking about the closer links now forged between the two councils, John Kelpie, chief executive of Derry City & Strabane District Council, said: “North West collaboration is now on a much more strategic footing than it ever has been in the past, led by both Councils, and for the first time ever with engagement of both governments.
“This is a unique example on this islands of cross-border, local government-central government collaboration. Indeed it is a unique example across Europe.
“This is the fourth largest city-region on the island. It’s a cross-border city region which, if it needed new more effective partnership arrangements prior to June 23 this year, it most definitely needed them on the morning of June 24.”
Mr Kelpie said the new arrangements would bring about an end to ‘back-to-back’ planning in the two council areas, and said the new working together across all sectors “will enable this city region to plan and shape this place on a 360 degree basis right across the functional economic area of influence”.
“With these new North West partnership arrangements, this city region is now moving in the right direction. It has a vision to realise its full potential to become a net contributor to the economies both sides of the border, north and south.
“It knows how to get there- to improve connectivity in our roads, our rail; to improve infrastructure both physical and virtual; by investing in skills, our university, our third level higher education colleges; by developing our key physical assets and development sites right across the area; by supporting our Small to Medium Enterprises, encouraging Foreign Direct Investors to set up in this area; and by developing a spirit and a culture of entrepreneurialism and support; and by having a business-friendly investment culture, underpinned by empowering, valuing, engaging and sustaining our communities throughout.
“In the next ten years,” he asserted, “with this approach, with central government on both sides of the border playing a part in our new story; we will see over £3bn of investment in this region; we will see an additional £500m of gross value added with these plans; we will see an additional £186m of salaries in our local community in an annual basis; we will see tax intake increase to £100m enabling reinvestment to take place and for the first time ever.
“If these joined-up plans are supported adequately by our partners in government and our stakeholders, we will see unemployment levels in this city-region fall close to or below the national average for the first time ever.”
He added however that there were “many risks in getting there as we all know from the experience of the past”.
These included Brexit, funding and political will, which he said was “a very fundamental aspect of ensuring that we succeed”.
He added: “Brexit is simply one of the major challenges that we face, albeit large; albeit pressing, it is simply one of the challenges. It is a risk we need to understand at a local level.
“It is a risk which we as a region need to own. We need to collectively discuss and debate its implications, and we need to feed into the national discourse that is taking place on the matter, both in the Republic, Northern Ireland, the UK and Europe.
“It’s a risk which we need to develop a collective response to from this city-region.
“Our clear focus has to remain on those issues which have held this region back for so long over so many years, with Brexit being one further risk to manage in that process.”
Seamus Neely, Chief Executive of Donegal County Council, earlier spoke of how said the two councils have developed a “deeper working arrangement building on the long history of working together that they have”.
“In recent times that collaboration has intensified as the two councils collectively drive the development of the wider north west region,” he said, adding: “That new level of collaboration comes at a time when local government reforms both north and south have afforded both councils much more similar functions and roles than previously, particularly on the economic development side, development plan making, forward planning, development management and in community planning.”
Mr Neely said that this provided a platform for working closely with local businesses to help prepare for the future and address issues, and also “developing a wider, singular marketing agenda that helps us to develop the benefits and the potential that exists in the North West region.”
He added: “Both Councils have our own unique identity, they serve interests in their own respective areas but they have found a way of developing a collective message and have managed very successfully to articulate a collaborative approach to driving the development of the region across three objections- economic growth and investment, physical and environmental development, social and community cohesion and wellbeing.
“The reality is that if something happens in the north west, then that assists the rest of the North West.”