Invest NI claims criticism ‘unfounded’ as councils devise new export initiative

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A Derry councillor has branded Invest NI’s record in the city and district “extremely poor” as councillors backed a new council-led cross-border scheme to help local businesses improve their export potential.

SDLP Councillor Sinead McLaughlin made the comments during a meeting of Derry’s Business & Culture Committee this week.

However, Invest NI have said that such claims are unfounded, stating that since June, 2018 it has announced projects that will help create over 700 jobs and bring £35m investment to the north west.

During the meeting on Tuesday, councillors were asked to endorse the proposed Global Export Programme, which is a joint initiative by Derry City & Strabane District Council and Donegal County Council.

Derry & Strabane Council Head of Business, Kevin O’Connor, told the committee that the extent to which businesses here engage in global commerce, will have a “significant influence” on the region’s prosperity and that helping more local businesses grow by selling their goods and services internationally, was “critical to sustain economic growth and creating and maintaining quality jobs.”

The Global Export Programme is geared towards small and medium sized businesses, with the aim to engage, mentor and build awareness of their global potential, create business networks, while also enhancing their global profile and connecting them to overseas buyers and markets.

It will also involve trade missions overseas and will be delivered over three years with a budget of £50,000 per annum.

A funding proposal is currently being prepared for submission to the North West Development Fund seeking 100 per cent funding, so there would be no financial implications for council.

The councils will also work directly with Invest NI, chamber of commerce and other local economic development agencies north and south.

Around 88 per cent of local companies employ less than 10 people.

Sinn Fein Colr. Maolíosa McHugh said he “endorsed the direction of travel” and complimented council officers for identifying the need for such a unique project. He also said it was hoped the project would help “minimise the negative impact we are all pretty sure Brexit is going to have on our economy”.

Colr. McLaughlin - a former CEO of Derry’s Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, also welcomed the bespoke programme. She said, however, that this was what Invest NI was funded to do and was ‘completely their remit.’

“Are you questioning whether they are not performing adequately and that this bespoke programme must come in on top of it, to do the job they are paid to do?” she asked.

Mr. O’Connor replied that he would not be questioning the performance of any other organisation but said the council felt this would complement existing programmes and projects and would not duplicate those existing programmes.

UUP Alderman Derek Hussey said: “For some considerable time there has been a concern as to Invest NI’s commitment to our area.”

Colr. McLaughlin said: “I am commending this project because I do think it is necessary. We can do it for ourselves but it is regrettable we have to do it for ourselves. The track record of Invest NI for this region has been extremely poor,” she claimed.

This was evidenced, she added, by the track record for jobs over the past year with Derry falling down into the bottom three councils. “It’s a result of that we, as a council,have to have a bespoke agency to do the job Invest NI is paid to do.”

Sinn Fein Colr. Mickey Cooper said his party too have been concerned with Invest NI’s commitment for “many, many years.”

He also proposed that the council writes to both Invest NI and Enterprise Ireland and ask them to contribute additional resources to the new project, a move which was endorsed by the committee as it agreed to back the new Export Programme.

A spokesperson for Invest NI responded yesterday: “Following the Transfer of Economic Functions in April 2015, councils have an increased economic development responsibility. Invest NI is supportive of allcouncil efforts to develop the potential of businesses with an intent to export. In this context, Invest NI is a strategic partner delivering the Community Plan for the region. This commitment forms a key part of our working relationship with DC&SDC.

“Invest NI has not been involved in the development of the Global Export Programme which will be jointly promoted by Donegal County Enterprise Board and DC&SDC. Our close relationship with DC&SDC will ensure that those NI businesses on the programme will be appropriately referred to Invest NI, in order that they receive the correct support, at the right time, to meet their business needs.”

The spokesperson added: “To claim that Invest NI has a poor track record in the region is unfounded. Since June 2018 we have announced projects in the North West that will help create almost 700 new jobs and over £35m of investment in the area. This includes projects such as 305 jobs to be created by FinTru; 67 new jobs by Danske Bank and the inward investment project by Alchemy, creating 250 new jobs – to name just a few,” the spokesperson added.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Derry and Strabane Council said yesterday that council has been working on a number of collaborative projects with both Invest NI and Enterprise Ireland, as well as partners in Donegal County Council to drive growth and support enterprise across the NW.

“We are pleased to report that much positive progress has been made through council’s Business Boost Programme which is being delivered by council with match funding from Invest NI. This programme has resulted in 13 company referrals from local businesses to Invest NI for further support.

“Council is also looking forward to launching its Global Export Programme in March, an initiative designed to further grow Derry and Strabane’s SME base and provide opportunities for local companies to sign up for the forthcoming joint International Trade Missions led by Derry and Strabane and Donegal County Councils. The scheme will also provide a pathway to additional support and assistance from Invest NI and Enterprise Ireland. Both Invest NI and Enterprise Ireland offer significant support to companies both locally and internationally through their global network, and have assisted both councils in progressing trade relations.”