Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster looks back at the challenges and successes of the last year and towards the prospect of a more economically stable new year.
Commenting on the past year the Minister said: “It has been a challenging economic year where local businesses have had to adapt and make hard choices to survive. In 2009 I have strived to support trade and industry through these difficult times and implement measures, to address short term pressures and the long-term development of the Northern Ireland economy.
“Over the last twelve months I have talked to businesses across the whole of Northern Ireland, supported local companies in their pursuit of trade opportunities in Europe, North America and India while encouraging foreign direct investment in Northern Ireland. Throughout my overseas missions, with Invest Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland, I am encouraged by our reputation abroad and I have taken every opportunity, most recently in the USA, to tell potential investors that Northern Ireland is a good place to do business and to encourage tourism growth.
“We have seen the benefits of our efforts overseas with strategically important investments from US companies, such as the New York Stock Exchange, which plans to increase its workforce in Northern Ireland to up to 400 very well paid jobs. We have also seen how we can support local companies through Invest NI’s programme of trade missions and provide help for those businesses in the agri-food sector resulting in the expansion of local companies, like Western Brand, in Lisnaskea.
“Importantly, Invest NI has also noted a year on year increase in the number of local companies availing of R&D assistance, a clear indication of the recognition by the Northern Ireland business community, of how innovation can support longer term business growth and help maintain competitiveness.
“While there are success stories I’m also mindful of those who have faced job losses over the last year and I can assure those individuals and their families that I am working hard to develop trade and investment opportunities that can deliver employment opportunities in the longer term.
“We have seen a ‘levelling off’ of unemployment figures in recent months and only time will tell if this represents the turning point that will eventually see the number of those people claiming unemployment related benefits fall.
The Minister added: “At this time of year I am particularly aware of those who are facing debt issues and over the year my Department supplied greater resources towards providing free, effective, independent and confidential debt advice to the public. In September 2009 we supported the set up, for the first time, of a dedicated Northern Ireland debt advice help line, telephone: 0800 917 4609. It is now well established and is helping hundreds of clients.
“I also hope to make an announcement of further investment in face to face debt advice provision early in the New Year. This will be in addition to the 14 advisors already in place through a long standing contract with Citizens Advice.
Turning to plans for the New Year Arlene Foster said: “I am committed to initiating change for the better and demonstrate that devolution is working for the people of Northern Ireland. I started on the path for change by commissioning an Independent Review of Economic Policy to assess whether my Department and Invest NI policies, programmes and resources are contributing optimally to the delivery of the productivity goal set out in the Programme for Government.
“With that in mind I launched an Independent Review of Economic Policy (Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) / Invest NI), in December 2008, to determine whether existing DETI and Invest NI policies, programmes and resources contribute optimally to the delivery of the productivity goal contained in the Programme for Government.
“The Review Panel published its Report in September, making a total of 58 recommendations which covered a broad range of issues associated with economic development and delivery here. The consultation period is now over and my Department is currently considering the responses received. I plan to make a statement to the Assembly on my response to the Independent Review of economic Policy before the end of January.
“The out-workings of the review will significantly contribute to our shared aim of growing a dynamic and innovative economy, to raise living standards across Northern Ireland.”
The Minister continued: “Despite the difficulties in 2009, my Department has worked hard to support business development and in December I announced a major investment, totalling almost £50million in Northern Ireland’s telecommunications infrastructure.
“The Next Generation Broadband project involves the introduction of new technology to increase broadband speeds in Northern Ireland over the next 18 months. This multi-million pound injection in our infrastructure has the potential to indirectly create up to 1,000 additional jobs per annum.
“The project is designed to deliver on the key Programme for Government objective to ensure 85% of businesses in Northern Ireland will have access to next generation broadband speeds by 2011.”
Commenting on the future for tourism Arlene Foster said: “I believe tourism has the potential for significant growth. I plan to launch the new tourism strategy in early 2010 to set out the road map for the future of tourism in Northern Ireland.
“Work is progressing well on the £97million Titanic Signature Building in Belfast. This will be a truly world class tourist attraction for Northern Ireland in 2012, which will attract an estimated 400,000 visitors annually.
“In the current difficult economic climate this project provides an important boost for the construction industry. Furthermore there will be additional economic benefits that will result from a rise in indirect employment in other sectors, due to increased visitor numbers.”
The Minister highlighted her Department’s work on energy matters and said: “I am acutely aware of the difficulties being experienced by large energy users as they deal with significant increases in electricity costs. I look forward to the conclusion of the Utility Regulator’s inquiry and how it may provide some further insight into the communication and hedging strategies undertaken.
“I recently announced that my Department is working closely with Northern Ireland Authority for Utility Regulation (NIAUR) to ensure the installation of smart energy meters in homes by 2010. Smart meters help consumers to learn how to use energy more wisely by allowing them to monitor energy consumption and reduce usage. As well as saving money, this results in a reduction in energy consumption and carbon emissions.
"My Department is continuing to develop the Strategic Energy Framework, which will set out the priorities for Northern Ireland’s energy future over the next ten years with the vision to achieve a secure, sustainable and affordable long-term future for energy through innovation and ambitious actions.”
In conclusion the Minister said: “I recently delivered the Government’s response to the report by MATRIX, which focused on how innovative, high-technology businesses can work collaboratively to exploit global market opportunities.
“Working together, with business leadership, government facilitation and academic inspiration, we can build a regional economy which can compete with the very best in the world.
“It has been a challenging year but, by government and business working together, we can ensure devolution delivers for the people of Northern Ireland and build towards a prosperous and dynamic economic future for everyone.”