Invest NI chief insists 'no crisis' at business support body but difficult choices ahead

Invest Northern Ireland Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Invest NI's interim chief executive has insisted that the business support body is not in crisis.

The business development agency suspended fresh offers of financial support to investors because of ongoing budget uncertainty as a result of the collapsed Executive at Stormont.

It has also recently seen several staff resigning.

While giving evidence to the Stormont Economy Committee, Mel Chittock said Invest NI had received an indicative budget allocation for 2022 in recent days but that did not mean it was 'business as usual', he added.

Mr Chittock said the decision was taken to pause offers “because it would be irresponsible for us to commit on projects we have not had sufficient budget to support”, adding that position was not unique to Invest NI among arm’s-length bodies.

“We’re now in a position where we can start to re-evaluate those projects in line with the indicative budget and making sure that we support those projects which are aligned with 10X (the Department for the Economy’s economic vision for the next 10 years),” he told MLAs.

Invest NI interim chief executive Mel Chittock Credit: NI Assembly/PA

In responses to questions by committee chair Caoimhe Archibald, Mr Chittock said they will have some difficult choices to make, and “will have to say no to some projects where we don’t believe the alignment is as strong as others”, adding projects will be prioritised and ranked.

Mr Chittock said due to continued budget pressures heightened by the loss of European funding, the body will not be continuing to support business in the same way.

He suggested that Invest NI is losing around £21-22million of funding from the ERDF (European Regional Development Fund) per year.

Addressing staffing, he said 300 employees were diverted to work on the High Street Voucher scheme for “a week or so” to process applications quickly.

“But the short sharp blast was just that, short and sharp, and there was no knock-on impact to our business,” he said.

“It’s also correct to say that we have legal proceedings in relation to a group of staff that joined the organisation in 2020 – I can’t comment as I’m sure the committee will appreciate given that that is a legal matter … but let me say one thing: the reason for the transfer of that work from an outside delivery body to Invest NI was to generate a significant saving of costs each year for the foreseeable future.

“What I can also say with full conviction is that there has been no knock-on impact to our work to secure investment from GB, Europe or the US.”

He told MLAs that the shape of economies across the world have radically changed over the last two years, and in response they have taken a view that Invest NI has to change.

“This change is positive, it’s not a response to any internal crisis, it’s not in response to any failed delivery, it’s a change to ensure we meet the new needs of Northern Ireland,” he said.

He said Invest NI intends to realign its structure to meet the 10X vision.

“The 10X vision is ground-breaking in that it sets an ambition for our economy for the next 10 years and the work we were doing was already under way and will now be supplemented by the newly announced independent review.

“The independent review has been planned since the New Decade New Approach deal document was published in 2020 and the fact that the review is happening now is actually good timing, as it will provide an independent perspective to what we do and how we do it.

“I, the board and staff fully welcome it.”