Northern Ireland has come of age. As it prospers beyond recognition, Patrick Fleming looks at how public sector infrastructure is benefiting

As recently as the mid-1990s, the pace of economic growth in Northern Ireland was negligible. Decades of civil unrest and failed peace talks discouraged the private sector from investing, while the public sector spent the majority of allocated budget on security. This, together with long-term under-investment, has left Northern Ireland the legacy of a deteriorating infrastructure.

Jumping forward to 2006, Northern Ireland is unrecognisable from its 1990s shadow. Mass investment from the private sector and structured plans laid by the public sector are now enabling the infrastructure to cope with the growing demands of a prospering Northern Ireland. In fact, in 2005 economic growth was estimated at 3.2 per cent, almost twice the growth of the UK.

Review of public administration
While infrastructure was subject to decades of under-investment, the UK Government over-compensated when it came to public administration. As it stands, Northern Ireland is one of the most represented countries in the world. The review of public administration is set to address this disparity and, according to the secretary of state, to “rebalance the economy to be less dependent on the public sector”.

The Strategic Investment Board
In 2002 the Strategic Investment Board (SIB) was created to develop a programme to transform the public sector infrastructure in Northern Ireland. Since 2003 the SIB has worked hand-in-hand with Government departments in every area of the public sector with a view to delivering a series of major projects.

December 2005 saw the launch of the investment strategy for Northern Ireland, which sets out the development of public services by 2018 through a series of projects to the value of £16bn. The projects involve long-term and holistic planning, with the intention of addressing the shortfall in health, transport, water and waste, education, social housing, sports, agriculture, forestry, fishing and art in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is renowned for its impressively high standards of education. However, this renown conceals the fact that long-term under-investment means that even today many children in deprived areas often leave school unqualified. A £2bn investment in education over the next decade is set to right this wrong and hopefully meet the real educational needs of the people of Northern Ireland.

The Belfast Education and Library Board’s strategic partnership project is one of the largest public-private partnerships in the educational sector that the UK has seen, with up to £500m investment transforming around 80 declining schools.

In further and higher education, phases of the development of Omagh College of Further Education and East Tyrone College of Further Education have recently completed.

The eHR Project in Northern Ireland is a pathfinder for similar projects in the UK and Europe. A contract of £37m was awarded in March 2006 and is set to transform the management of HR in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS). Many other projects are in the pipeline.

Inadequate funding has prevented Northern Ireland’s health service reaching its full potential. A partnership involving the SIB has been set up to deliver a health infrastructure programme worth £2.9bn over the next decade. The projects cover both acute and community health facilities, new hospitals and the upgrading of existing hospitals. The next year will see the commencement of four major hospital upgrading projects and in the following 10 years a further £1.9bn will be invested in at least another eight. Plans are also in place for the opening of new hospitals and the regeneration of a number of existing hospital sites.

Water and waste
Northern Ireland’s water infrastructure is now ageing and inefficient. In order to comply with EU directives, Northern Ireland needs high level investment. For example, £2bn is to be invested in upgrading the water and sewerage infrastructure over the next decade and this, together with the income generated by the controversial introduction of direct water charges in 2007, will fund major projects such as Alpha and Omega. This vital investment in water will ensure that Northern Ireland meets EU directives on drinking water and the disposal of waste water.

Like the majority of EU countries, Northern Ireland has also had to transform its waste-management strategy in order to comply with EU directives. Currently a partnership involving the SIB is working to meet Northern Ireland’s future needs by way of a £300m investment. In order to advance the project, a waste-management strategy has been prepared, a waste infrastructure task force developed and a regional waste partnership groups established. The SIB also plans to coordinate activities with those in the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland has a developed transport infrastructure in need of a programme of improvement. The regional transport strategy together with £50m annual investment is aimed at improving Northern Ireland’s roads. The first project, worth £100m, will upgrade the M1/Westlink and widen the M2, while the second, with an investment of £250m, is designed to improve the corridor between Belfast and Dublin and the carriageway between Newry and Cloghogue. A further £250m will also be spent constructing a dual carriageway between Londonderry and Dungiven, and another £400m has been allocated for road improvements up to 2015.

NICS currently has a £260m office portfolio with annual running costs of £80m. The Workplace 2010 project is set to upgrade, improve and radically change the current working environment of NICS. The SIB states that: “It will provide a platform to integrate a number of reform programmes and introduce a wide range of innovative working practice.” A number of pathfinder projects are currently ongoing and it is envisaged that by the close of the project that more than £1bn will have been invested.

Strategic sites
The former Maze/Long site is planned to be redeveloped in what is envisaged to be one of the most significant long-term projects with which the SIB has been involved. One of the proposals for the site is a multi-sports stadium which would be part of a sports zone including an all-weather pitch for training and community use, indoor multi-use arena and a conflict transformation zone. Industrial and agricultural zones are also envisaged. n
Patrick Fleming is a partner at Cleaver Fulton Rankin