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Councils can drive post-coronavirus economic recovery, Assembly told

Local council areas can be drivers of economic revival, skills development and growth beyond Covid-19 if they are properly supported, MLAs have been told.

Representatives from the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE NI) at Stormont’s Economy Committee this morning highlighted that councils have been at the forefront of providing small business support during the coronavirus crisis. They urged the Executive to ensure that local government is empowered and co-funded to drive the regional, post-pandemic recovery.

The impact of Covid-19 on local government has been devastating, with many districts already considering service reductions amidst losing around £10.5m of income a month due to lockdown closures of off-street car parking, leisure, and tourism. However, the response to business recovery has been locally diligent and a major priority for all 11 councils.

Speaking after briefing the Committee, Alderman Stephen Moutray, Chair of NILGA’s Economy Network said: “All 11 local councils in Northern Ireland have been working tirelessly throughout this crisis to deliver support, guidance and advice to small businesses and local companies. Councils have provided tailored mentoring on business continuity, resilience, financial planning, HR support, and moving to digitalisation of services. There are positive examples of councils who have assisted in sourcing and procuring PPE for key workers, ensuring suppliers are paid promptly, helping rural businesses by quickly processing development grants, and guiding businesses to move their services online.

“Our councils have been locally responsive, intelligent and adaptable to the unique needs and circumstances of their areas. Economic development teams across the country are responding quickly to business needs and concerns, but their resources and capacity are stretched. The coronavirus presents a serious danger to local businesses and the vitality of towns and villages across Northern Ireland. Government interventions like offering rates relief to most businesses for 12 months, amending and extending the furlough scheme for a longer period, and widening the self-employment support scheme would be enhanced measures to protect our local economies.

“It’s time for a transformation in our economic landscape and that means better ways for central and local government to interact and foster economic development. By working together and co-designing recovery plans, we can protect small businesses, encourage entrepreneurship, and maximise high value sectors like AI, health and life sciences, fintech, and robotics.

“Local government can drive the post pandemic economic recovery across Northern Ireland, if given the right resources. Currently, councils only hold 5% of the public purse yet we will be on the front line of the economic rebuild. There is an opportunity to change how government and public services are carried out in Northern Ireland.

“We have the chance to develop a joined-up, locally-driven, one-public-purse approach to the economy which promotes sustainable development, addresses economic inactivity, promotes healthier and happier communities, and embeds entrepreneurship, the green new deal and innovation as core skills.”