February 4, 2014

Border Development Zone can deliver on many fronts

Published in the Irish News 4 February 2014

Author: Philip McDonagh, an independent economist based in Northern Ireland.

“It will really require the input of the private sector and its representatives from the region to make things happen. The next task will be to harness some of this energy in support of the initiative.”

It was nearly lunchtime on the second day of the joint annual conference of the Centre for Cross-Border Studies and the International Centre for Local and Regional Government. The conference was exploring the concept of a Border Development Zone as a means of fostering economic recovery in the cross-border region of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

“This Border Development Zone is a great idea, but where’s the beef?” demanded an American planner now based in Ireland, echoing the old lady in the US TV burger advert when she saw a rival burger chain offering bigger, fluffier baps.

The idea for a Border Development Zone originated at a meeting of policy-makers who met in Newry in autumn 2011 to discuss the findings of a major economic study by John Bradley and Michael Best.

The Bradley-Best report had concluded that the region on both sides of the north-south border had been left ‘economically stranded’ as a result of the recession of the last few years and the neglect of central government policies.

The Border Development Zone is broadly defined as the six border counties of the south stretching from Louth round to Donegal and the adjoining 10 or 11 northern district council areas from Newry & Mourne to Derry.

The group agreed that regional development policy in both jurisdictions was in such a weak state that the region along the border could not wait for Belfast and Dublin to solve its problems but would have to build on its own internal strengths to generate economic growth.

Research presented at the conference revealed some unexpected features of the border region economy. For example, firms located in the region are more likely to be exporters than those in other parts of the island.

The region has an unusually strong manufacturing base with clusters of food and drink, engineering and wood processing firms, but also has a number of very successful services businesses. Case studies showed that many of these businesses do not consider their location to be a problem that hinders their development or restricts their ability to export, although firms located in the north west highlight issues of external access both for goods and people.

Experts from Europe and Scotland were on hand to share their experience and expertise. Three key sectors were identified as offering the greatest opportunity for collaborative economic development – the agri-food sector, tourism and the green economy of low carbon, energy savings and renewables.

Lots of ideas were suggested for initiatives in these areas, building on what is already happening and the networks that are already there. The need was identified for a bank of business mentors to support the development of the export capability of local firms.

The debate at the conference was centred on two main areas. The first major question was the spatial issue. Rather than defining the area as a single development zone, it may be more practical to suggest that there is in fact a central corridor along the Armagh/Monaghan/Cavan/Leitrim/Fermanagh/Sligo/Omagh border that is largely rural in character and that joins the two strong urban economic centres at either end – Derry/Donegal in the north west and Newry/Dundalk in the east.

Comparisons were made with the Belfast-Dublin economic corridor that was promoted very successfully in the 1990s by George Quigley and Liam Connellan, representing the CBI and IBEC employer organisations at the time. Perhaps the Border Development Zone needs to have industry champions who will promote it in the same way.

Linked to the issue of champions was the role of the institutions in moving the initiative forward. It is clear that local authorities on both sides of the border are undergoing a period of major structural reform which will be absorbing much of their energy over the next year or two.

‘Putting People First’ in the south and the Review of Public Administration in the north together represent the biggest shake-up in local government in both jurisdictions in many years.

With local elections also coming up this year, cross-border co-operation is probably the very last thing on the minds of local authorities at the present time.

So if the democratically elected authorities for the area are not going to push the idea, who is?

There are three cross-border network bodies in the area – the North West Region Cross Border Group, the Irish Central Border Area Network and the East Border Region Committee – but all are answerable to the councils that have put them in place, although there is a view that a greater degree of collaboration between them might help.

InterTradeIreland is the cross-border body set up with the remit of supporting cross-border economic development and there must surely be a role for them in any proposed Border Development Zone.

However, as a number of delegates to the conference pointed out, it will really require the input of the private sector and its representatives from the region to make things happen. The next task will be to harness some of this energy in support of the initiative.

So, where’s the beef that our American colleague was looking for? Well, it may not offer a special tax-free zone or an enterprise zone with an unregulated approach to planning, but there is enough interest in the concept of a Border Development Zone to suggest that this is an initiative that will attract increasing interest.