Businesses and communities in the North West have always played a significant role in Northern Ireland’s economy. And they have an important part to play in its recovery.
One of my first official visits as Economy Minister in January last year was to Ulster University at Magee. I have watched since then in admiration as companies – such as O’Neills sportswear manufacturers in Strabane – have adapted to the change in markets brought about by this dreadful pandemic. O’Neills’ ingenuity in delivering essential PPE for the NHS has won it new orders, more customers and an award.
Other companies, such as Seagate, have maintained almost full manufacturing capacity since last March. They have provided work and protected incomes.
But not all businesses have been in a position to do this. We recognised this and that is why we provided £8.2m in Covid business support grants – through Invest NI – to over 1,000 applicants in the Derry City and Strabane District Council area.
Businesses were also able to avail of the £10k and £25k business grant schemes while vital jobs within tourism and hospitality businesses are being supported through the Wet Pubs and Large Tourism and Hospitality support schemes.
This support was essential to protect incomes during the worst days of the crisis. But now we look to reopen and revitalise our economy.
My High Street Stimulus Scheme will boost retail demand in Londonderry, Limavady, Strabane, Coleraine and in all towns and villages in between. While my Tourism Voucher Scheme will help bring visitors back to tourist accommodation and visitor attractions.
My Economic Recovery Action Plan sets out how we will create a more competitive, inclusive and greener economy and rebuild after the impact of Covid.
Creating jobs and developing skills in a regionally balanced economy are key to this.
My Department worked with the Further Education colleges and universities to deliver courses in areas where skills are in demand and which were open to those whose jobs had been affected by Covid-19. This work is ongoing, with North West Regional College (NWRC) attracting almost £0.5m to deliver some 650 places.
We will build on the £54m of support to 430 different businesses provided through Invest NI over the last five years.
This support has helped local businesses create over 2,500 jobs in the Derry City and Strabane District Council area alone, and contributed to over £300m of investment in the area.
The North West will enjoy significant economic benefits from the City and Growth Deals programme which will invest heavily in innovation. The Derry/Londonderry and Strabane City Region deal involves targeted investment in excess of £210m.
Proposed significant investments include a new industry-focused research centre at Magee on robotics and cognitive analytics.
Ulster University holds an important role in educating our young people and preparing them for the workforce.
The expansion of its Magee Campus plays an essential part in the upskilling necessary for economic recovery.
I am delighted to see that North West companies are working with my Department on skills development. FinTrU, Alchemy and local engineering companies continue to work with the Assured Skills programme.
Just last month I launched a new FinTrU North West Assured Skills Academy offering 20 places on a high quality online training course, delivered by NWRC and UU. Each participant who completes the training is guaranteed an interview for a role at FinTrU’s NW Centre of Excellence. A Collaborative Assured Skills Welding Academy is underway at the college’s Springtown campus.
In the last year, NWRC has enrolled over 300 employees in qualifications at Level 2 and above, funded by our Skills Focus programme. Through my Department’s 100% funded InnovateUs programme, NWRC has also helped over 90 small businesses, in the last year, to develop skills to undertake innovation activities.
We understand that connectivity is the foundation of recovery. That is why we launched Project Stratum which will transform the broadband connectivity landscape for citizens and businesses across primarily rural areas including the North West. It will bring next generation broadband services to premises currently unable to access speeds of 30 megabits per second or greater.
Also we aim to support North West air connectivity with GB by part funding, alongside the Department for Transport (DfT), the City of Derry Airport to London route until the end of March 2023.
The past 12 months have been hard for everyone and the impact has been felt across Northern Ireland. Brighter days are within touching distance for all of us.
I look forward to being able to get out and visit towns and cities in the near future to give my support to the business community. I remain committed to the North West and to doing all that I can for the people living there.