Not enough ideas to end ‘lost decade’

Academics, businesses and government need to work together on credible policies to revive the north’s ailing economy, a senior University of Ulster academic told business leaders in Coleraine last night.

The Ulster Business School’s Professor Neil Gibson, director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy (NICEP), told the annual Provost’s Business Lecture that it was not sufficient to place the onus for fresh economic thinking solely on the shoulders of politicians.

And he said that, through NICEP’s research, the university was demonstrating its willingness and desire to foster realistic debate and develop imaginative solutions to the challenges facing the economy.

“Everyone knows how challenging the economic conditions are, but there have been very few new policy ideas put forward to revive the local economy, even though the global recession struck five years ago,” Professor Gibson said.

“We are halfway through what many commentators are referring to as ‘a lost decade’ and yet new ideas in economic policy are thin on the ground.

“It’s too easy to say politicians or policy-makers are not doing enough. There needs to be a credible set of policy choices presented, debated and ultimately implemented.

“Businesses need to articulate their policy ‘asks’ in a costed and evidenced way. Wish lists are sadly all too common.”

Professor Gibson said NICEP would have a key role to play alongside political and business leaders in encouraging a more honest and realistic debate about the future direction of the economy.

“People can deal with a problem when they know what it is,” he said.

“We need to be braver with our citizens and tell them the economic facts of life.”

Professor Gibson noted Northern Ireland relied on annual fiscal support to maintain its standard of living that was roughly equal to the entire cost of the London Olympic Games.

He argued that it was unrealistic to assume the region was entitled to this level of support, adding: “The idea that we have some ‘entitlement’ to this level of support is potentially dangerous.

“We need people to understand that changes to public spending, to welfare payments, to our health service and all the other publicly provided services may be unpleasant but the conversation must take place. We need a new level of economic debate to foster a new era of responsibility.”

Professor Gibson said the key policy debate as to whether governments should spend more or cut more in response to economic conditions was a more subtle one that what was currently being portrayed.

He suggested perhaps a new approach embracing both tactics may be required.

Coleraine campus provost Professor Deirdre Heenan welcomed the NICEP director’s call for fresh thinking.

“At what is a challenging time for the Northern Ireland economy, it is vital there is fresh thinking and a robust examination of how the economy can move forward,” she said.

“The Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy will step up to that challenge and it shows how the university is eager to play a central role in formulating policies that could revive the economy.”