The inaugural meeting of the Executive’s Regional Opportunities Ministerial Task Force, established to focus on addressing the indisputable economic plight of the North West, was seen by many as, at last, a step in the right direction towards addressing many of the issues we face here and building a better platform on which to build our economy.
Indeed, the establishment of such a Ministerial Taskforce was first proposed by the SDLP as far back as 2011.
The fanfare heralding that first meeting in January almost drowned out any pessimistic rumblings that this may have been some kind of PR exercise to create the impression of activity. I, at that time, welcomed what was a positive development but emphasised that it must deliver or that this new forum would become, basically, a talking shop.
Currently, it isn’t even that!
In June, I wrote to the First and Deputy First Ministers respectively, asking when the next meeting would be scheduled. I also asked that a ‘City Deal for Derry’ be put on the agenda for that next meeting. While no date has yet been set, I will be outlining to Ministerial colleagues the real potential of a City Deal to deliver change for Derry and the North West.
We all know that the key issue is to attract more jobs to the North West. While there have been some very welcome announcements recently – much more needs to be done. The reality is that employers and developers are not going to be attracted to the region unless they have good transport links, excellent broadband and a ready pool of workers with 21st century skills. It’s also becoming harder to get professional and skilled people to come here - the Western Trust is having to rely on a higher proportion of locums to deliver services that any of the other Trusts. As Minister, I can now travel faster from Stormont to Dublin than I can from Stormont to my home in Derry - this is totally unacceptable in this day and age.
The frustration for people here is that everyone knows what needs to be done – we have agreed the One Plan and lobbied long and hard for the A5 and A6, improved railway and bus services, the expansion of Magee, and to make the most of our cross-border links. After the recess, my colleague John Dallat MLA will be tabling a motion in the Assembly calling for a special case to be made to source the capital investment needed to complete the roads and rail upgrades that we need. Through the North South Ministerial Council, I have pushed for a greater North/South impetus through the North West Gateway Initiative.
What we need now is delivery - and this will need significant financial investment in the region.
As Environment Minister, I have successfully brought forward local government reform and Derry City and Strabane District Council now has important powers to aid the development of the region - through development planning, community planning and soon - urban re-generation powers.
While this is all well and good, the plans won’t be worth the paper they are written on unless we can find creative ways to lever in funds to make them deliver for people. One way of doing this would be a City Deal. The City Deal approach is a mechanism that could be used to lever in more funding and/or borrowing ability for councils to enable them to deliver on their development and re-generation plans
MP for Foyle, Mark Durkan and my colleague Colum Eastwood, held a very successful seminar on this in Derry in March at which Nick Small from Liverpool City Council outlined how a City Deal had brought success to economic development there.
There are many different kinds of deals - but a good example is a deal made with Glasgow and Clyde Valley Councils last year.
The deal involves funding from the UK Government, the Scottish Executive and the local authorities. It includes a £1.13 billion of capital funding to for infrastructure development, the growth of a life science sector through world class R&D, support for small and medium enterprises and to tackle unemployment.
In the March 2015 Budget, George Osborne announced that negotiations would begin for the creation of a further three City Deals – two in Scotland and one in Wales.
While clearly our population doesn’t compare with those in major cities in England and Scotland, I can’t see why the financial approach that is being taken there can’t be taken here - the UK Government, the Executive and the Council working together to find a creative way - even in this difficult budgetary climate - to bring more investment to ensure delivery for the North West. Scotland and Wales have devolution - so if it can work there why not here? If the Scottish Executive could go straight to the Treasury to negotiate a deal – why can’t our Executive do the same? After all the First Minister and Deputy First minister went straight to Treasury to seek an Enterprise Zone for Coleraine.
If local government reform is truly to deliver for people - and if the Executive is serious about addressing economic imbalance in the North West, the Executive needs to step up to the mark and lobby the Treasury for a City Deal for Derry and Strabane. The Irish Government can also play its part by using its influence with Westminster as co-signatory of the Good Friday Agreement and by honouring its commitments to the North West including funding for the A5.
That’s what I will be saying at the next meeting of the Taskforce – if we ever get a date for it. Hopefully other Ministers will open their minds to taking a creative approach, otherwise, there’s not really a lot of point in continuing with a talking shop.