By Edward Ferrin – Business and Economics Editor
The United States recently passed a huge “Build Back Better” bill through Congress, which is aimed at developing the country’s infrastructure – its railways, roads, and electricity grids. President Biden aims to get more Americans into employment and to help overcome recurrent recession, which may become a norm if COVID-19 doesn’t continue to threaten more curfews and individual states don’t speed up vaccination rates.
The Tory government at Westminster, meanwhile, has made some questionable decisions over the past few months. They have resorted to curbing social security, with cuts to Universal Credit and their imposition of tougher conditions for those who are in receipt of it. Their recent Health and Care bill passed through Parliament has helped cut the health service into smaller segment departments, where private firms may be able to sit on NHS boards or carry out some work that public sector staff would do instead currently.
To add further headache for Tory backbenchers, especially those who preside in the “red wall” seats – Boris Johnson’s speech to the CBI on Monday was by far his least finest hour. For 21 seconds, he lost his place in his notes and spoke about his trip to Peppa Pig Land over the weekend for almost two minutes. At a time when businesses and more importantly workers need clarity, the Prime Minister has still got a lot to deliver on.
Universities are not exempt from this uncertainty. Queen’s University lecturers are to go on strike at the beginning of December, over a row about pay. At a time when students are about to finish assignments before Christmas, it could not come at a worse time. However, the government has been warned before of the looming crisis with academic staff pay. The Tory government at Westminster and the Northern Ireland Executive have both sat idly by and haven’t formed a clear, concise way of trying to deal with the crisis since 2018.
Boris Johnson has not got a “Build Back Better” bill running through Parliament – he would claim that the Treasury could not afford it. Yet as we have seen in the United States and the EU, if we are to overcome the shortcomings of rampant inflation over the next few years and find some way of cutting the deficit – we must try to build sustainable, successful infrastructure systems.
The Conservatives have already failed this first test with their recent cutting of HS2 in England, discontinuing the extension of high-speed rail to Leeds and Yorkshire. This may cause further economic hardship in the north of England, with little productivity in the local economy as result of a lack of connectivity with the rest of the UK and more significantly, Europe.
Recently, the Minister for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland Nichola Mallon, made the case that the funding Boris was prepared to set aside for the “Boris Bridge” between Northern Ireland and Scotland should be given to help improve Northern Ireland’s infrastructure. She argued that it would help re-build Northern Ireland’s economy with construction employment rising, improved connectivity to the EU with an enhanced “Enterprise” rail service between Belfast and Dublin, alongside sustainable modes of electricity production – when Northern Ireland still has no plan to tackle climate change.
Northern Ireland could do with some investment to help boost the economy after the pandemic. Infrastructure would be a great place to start – new railways west of the river Bann, new roads around urban settlements, new air connectivity and also new sustainable electricity grids. Maybe the solution to Northern Ireland’s huge subvention from Westminster and our economic inactivity may be found in a Stormont-own “Build Back Better” programme. COVID-19 has reset the clock for the economy – let’s see if Northern Ireland can reset its fortunes.