The First Minister Rt. Hon. Peter Robinson MLA was the guest speaker at the installation dinner of Craigavon Mayor Cllr Carla Lockhart at Craigavon Borough Council on Friday evening. During his remarks the First Minister said,
“The power to reduce the level of Corporation Tax could potentially transform our economic fortunes. Not only could it lead to the creation of tens of thousands of additional jobs, but it could help rebalance our economy. It may not be a silver bullet to all of our economic woes but for us it could be a game changer.
To suggest, as has been the case in recent days, that the delay in the devolution in Corporation Tax is due to the Executive, betrays at best a startling ignorance of the facts, or at worst a willingness to make up facts to bend the truth. No delay in this process can be laid at our doorstep. Indeed without our constant pressure the issue would not be on the agenda.
On the 18th of next month the Ministerial Working Group on the Economy will meet and I hope that we can reach a conclusion on this long running issue before Christmas.
While we wait for a decision from the UK Government on whether they will devolve these powers to the Assembly we are looking at what else might be done besides.
In the short term there are small steps that can be taken. They will need cross-party agreement, but let me set out a few examples of the areas under Executive consideration.
There are no easy answers and each choice will have consequences.
Firstly, we could revisit the issue of car parking charges in our town centres. The impact of increases to parking charges seems to have had great psychological impact on customers without raising a significant amount of money. I am not opposed to out of town shopping centres per se, but it is important that there is a level playing field for the whole retail sector. No one wants to see deserted town centres, with ‘to let’ signs the norm. While charges can also play an important role in traffic management and in ensuring a turnover of shoppers, there must be a better way forward.
Secondly, Business Rates raised in Northern Ireland make an important contribution to public spending, but in difficult economic times for businesses on the edge, this can amount to the difference between survival and failure.
In recent years we have held Business Rates to the level of inflation and already have an extensive range of reliefs, but I would like to see what further we can do, bearing in mind that any further reliefs would have an impact on public spending.
Thirdly, we must free up the planning process to allow projects which will create jobs. There are two issues here.
Delays in planning continue to frustrate investment and hold back potential growth. Departmental processes must be expedited and steps taken to restrict the legal processes which are abused in order to block development. The present system is suppressing economic growth.
Literally tens of millions of pounds in potential private sector investment is being held up in planning. This could provide for thousands of construction sector jobs at no cost to the public purse. Delays in taking decisions are often compounded by years of further delay in the courts.
In addition planners should be able to take account of the job impact of a planning proposal, as a material fact in favour of awarding planning permission when they are considering the merits of an application.
So speaking personally I want to see much greater priority given to the economic impacts of development and I want the Executive to investigate how it can limit or avoid delays caused by Judicial Reviews of planning decisions.
Fourthly we should explore extending lending to business through the Growth Loan Fund. This has already been a success with the first loans agreed and I believe that we should explore what more we can do in this area.
And fifthly, we should work with the private sector to create jobs. While public spending is scarce, we should seek to use what funds we have available to lever in private sector investment. We need to make every pound of public spending go further than ever before. There are important schemes particularly in the area of regeneration that, for relatively small sums of public funding, can attract significant private investment and help rejuvenate a town or part of a city.
The truth is that whether it is in Craigavon or Carrickfergus we will only maximise our potential by working together. Under direct rule we could avoid difficult decisions and simply criticise others. Those days are gone.
We have learnt at Stormont that people expect politicians to deliver and not spend their time in petty bickering. Especially in these difficult times people will not tolerate squabbling about matters far removed from the day-to-day issues they have to face.”