In August 2020, Northern Ireland’s Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon, established a Ministerial Advisory Panel on Infrastructure to examine the desirability of creating an Infrastructure Commission for Northern Ireland. The Panel reported back in October 2020 and its key recommendation was that ‘an Infrastructure Commission, with a clear remit…should be established as soon as practical.’
Global Infrastructure Hub’s Partnerships Manager, Sam Barr recently spoke to two members of the Panel – the Chair, Kirsty McManus, Director of the Northern Ireland Institute of Directors, and Panel Member, Richard Johnston, Assistant Director of the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre – for their insights on the Report’s recommendations.
Read the Q&A below to discover their thoughts on how best practice infrastructure planning is a competitive advantage in a global market for infrastructure capital, and why having a dedicated infrastructure body could help governments maximise the social and environmental benefits of infrastructure investment.
Q: Can you share some background on the Ministerial Advisory Panel on Infrastructure Report?
McManus: The reason for the report is that infrastructure has been a long-standing issue in Northern Ireland. There are concerns around project execution, delays, and judicial review.
Ultimately there is a huge gap between what is delivered and a long-term vision for Northern Ireland.
We also wanted to bring the private sector and government together for the betterment of Northern Ireland. I think the Minister saw what had been done with the Infrastructure Commissions in Scotland, Wales and Great Britain and was keen to see if there is something that we can do here.
Johnston: A lot of the demand for an Infrastructure Commission is driven by frustrations around the speed of planning and procurement decisions, which are perceived as too slow. In addition, in Northern Ireland, we spend less per capita on infrastructure than some of our near neighbours, so it’s important that when we do invest, that it’s in the right infrastructure. There’s a desire that we should focus on the long-term and that we should be data-driven and use evidence. For these reasons, I think the evidence is clear that an Infrastructure Commission is essential for Northern Ireland to progress at pace.
Q: The breadth of engagement that you undertook was very much to the Report’s credit. How important was it to spread the net widely and get a global perspective?
McManus: As we’re not the only ones dealing with these issues it was important, for me, to capture that. For example, we looked at the Republic of Ireland. They don’t have a Commission, so we looked at their process and why they decided not to go through with a Commission. Casting the net widely allowed us to not just think about our region – what’s happening in the UK, what’s happening in Ireland – but to benchmark ourselves on the global stage.
Johnston: The two things that came through very clearly from the engagement were the importance of skills and infrastructure to boost the competitiveness of our economy – and their increasing importance due to COVID-19 and European Union Exit. If we get those skills and infrastructure, other things will begin to fall into place. Being able to look at the different institutional setups around the world was very useful from a competitiveness perspective as it was helpful to understand what the international comparison is. Interestingly, 95% of what we heard worldwide pointed in exactly the same direction [supporting an Infrastructure Commission].
Q: Would having an Infrastructure Commission and the long-term planning focus that it brings be a strong signal to potential investors?
McManus: We consulted with investors, big tech, infrastructure companies and banks, and their experience of investing in [infrastructure in] Northern Ireland was the same – there is a perception that there is more judicial review within Northern Ireland than the rest of the UK. At the moment, if you’re an investor and ask yourself ‘why should I invest in Northern Ireland?’ there isn’t those confidence signals being sent.
Having a structured Infrastructure Commission that’s focused on the long-term, separate from politics would give a strong signal to investors around the globe. It introduces a more efficient way of doing business and infrastructure that is fit for purpose.
Q: When GI Hub spoke to our International I-body Forum earlier this year, one of their top priorities was the role that their organisations could play in delivering a credible path to net zero. How important was that for you both in delivering this report? What sort of role could a Northern Ireland Infrastructure Commission play?
McManus: I think it is central. A path to net zero came through very strongly in our work when it came to climate change and infrastructure. From a UK perspective, we are signed up to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, but we are not prepared for this because we don’t have any central organisation looking at it.
Johnston: I also think, from an investment perspective, when you see the likes of BlackRock sending signals to the market that they will only invest in green projects, that’s a really strong indicator from a foreign direct investment perspective.
When we are talking about companies that might want to invest in Northern Ireland, they will be looking closely at our green credentials.
Young people are also more discerning about the companies that they would like to work for, for many it’s all about their green credentials. How young people engage, interact and behave in this arena is already beyond any of the policy conversations we are having.
Q: Nobody expects events that impact infrastructure like fires or floods or indeed, pandemics. What role could an Infrastructure Commission play in developing more resilient infrastructure?
McManus: An Infrastructure Commission could play a role in future preparation. Again, taking it through that lens of competitiveness by being digitally enabled. Looking at the things we need to do to be more competitive and forward looking will put us in a much better place to deal with any future shocks.
Q: The take up of digital has been slow in the infrastructure sector even though the potential benefits, in such a capital-intensive industry, are huge. In addition, the data created by infrastructure is highly valuable. Where does digital and infrastructure stand in Northern Ireland?
McManus: We actually have a strong digital transformation and cybersecurity sector here in Northern Ireland, which a lot of people might not know. However, I don’t think we’re fully capitalising on that opportunity. For example, the department that looks after digital is separate from the infrastructure department. The ideal skill set for an Infrastructure Commissioner would include a strong technology or digital background to make these connections and develop synergies.
Johnston: There is so much data out there that isn’t being used because we don’t have the capacity or capability to make the best of it right now. An Infrastructure Commission should have a strong data analytics work stream to make the most of this opportunity and learn from other nations.
Q: Technology can open and support more equitable economic opportunities. I want to ask about making sure that infrastructure is inclusive. In your report you singled out youth and other specific groups that should be engaged in the infrastructure planning process. How important is inclusive infrastructure?
McManus: Well for us [youth inclusion] was just such an obvious one. If we are investing in infrastructure for the future it will be used by the younger generation and, at the moment, we’re not engaging them in the debate.
We need to engage with the community in the debate and offer them a part to play in the decision-making, allowing them autonomy and empowerment.
About the interviewees
Kirsty McManus, MBA, Dip IoD, National Director, Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland
Kirsty was appointed National Director for the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland in August 2017. The Institute supports 1,000 Northern Irish business leaders through unparalleled access to information, advice, peer networks and learning opportunities.
Formerly Deputy Director at the NI Confederation of British Industry, Kirsty’s appointment followed a successful career during which she has held senior positions at the Ulster University, NI Chamber and Vistage in California.
Kirsty has over 20 years’ experience working in markets such as the United States and Europe.
Kirsty has a degree in Information Management from Queens University, an MBA from Ulster University Business School and achieved the IoD Diploma in Company Direction.
Richard Johnston, MSc, Dip IoD, Deputy Director, Ulster University Economic Policy Centre
Richard is an Economist who has held a wide range of roles in the public, private, academic and third sectors over two decades. His research focuses on growing the economy, boosting competitiveness and the inclusion of all groups throughout NI. He is currently a member of the Department for the Economy’s Ministerial Economic Advisory Group, a Trustee of the Inspire Business Centre.