14 January 2014

Sadly, as we enter 2014, I am experiencing flashbacks of a previous period of business uncertainty. How can we envisage starting 2014, the 20th anniversary year of "our ceasefire" and yet have bomb scares, disruption and uncertainty? Having been in business in this city for 30 years, I cannot be alone in my frustration, my revulsion or my desire not to see Northern Ireland slide backwards.

At Stormont we have a group of highly paid politicians who have been "sorting" the peace process for nearly two decades. So why do we still spend such an enormous amount of time and money looking back over our shoulders? Why are we still so tolerant of those who seek to disrupt our province and prevent us surging forward, away from our troubled past? Why do our leaders so spectacularly fail to lead? They have the control they always wanted, so why are they so poor at managing our future? In business, results matter and our politicians would have been replaced years ago had they delivered these results to business employers.

Obviously this magazine concerns itself with business, and it is within the economic sphere in which our politicians appear to deliver so little that actually assists. Sure they will always show up for a photo opportunity, congratulating/piggybacking businesses that make progress despite the problems, but they don't seem to listen to the wider business community regarding changes needed to allow more entrepreneurial activity to flourish. So to start 2014, here is my wish-list of property/construction issues that the Assembly could rectify.

* Vacant rates remain a huge disincentive to the recovery of the commercial property market and are a massive handicap to getting new development projects off the ground. The Assembly needs to realise that its blinkered "cash grab" policy is governed by the law of diminishing returns and simply assists more distressed landlords to go bankrupt faster. Collection rates are deteriorating, and as time progresses, the uncollected debt will pointlessly increase. The Assembly needs to encourage development, so give new developments an exclusion from vacant rates until occupiers are secured.

* The Modern Government Lease: take this hybrid travesty, found nowhere else in the UK, and consign it to the history books. This lease has been foisted onto NI landlords and is an enormous handicap to investment from the UK institutions and property companies. The longer the Land and Property Service is allowed to manipulate the market, the worse the development of new office facilities for our service sector economy will be.

*Planning Service: if our economy starts a slow recovery can the Assembly please deliver a planning service with the capability of making decisions in a timely fashion. Delay in the development process is frequently the death knell for a project and the biggest element in delay is nearly always the planning/roads consultations. Give the Planning Service the resources required to function properly and deliver an actual "service".

*Belfast City Council: would you please sort out a better bus lane system and stop clogging up the city centre with sets of traffic lights that do not seem to co-ordinate with the next set and create ridiculous pinchpoints.
* Encourage our banks to lend on commercial and infrastructure projects allowing the development process to get back into action and meet the growing needs of our knowledge-based economy.

The above are some of the major items on my 2014 wish-list but I am sure other readers will have more. I would really like to see our politicians finally start to look forward to our future and stop looking backwards. Make 2014 the year you actually start adding value to Northern Ireland, deliver the stability our economy needs and finally show us that you have the ability to lead.

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