Civil Service head says it will play leading role

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The Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service has told Londonderry business leaders he will “do all” he can to help the city fulfil its potential.

David Sterling was addressing a business lunch hosted by Londonderry Chamber of Commerce in the Bishop’s Gate Hotel on Wednesday.

Mr Sterling, who leads around 23,500 civil servants and is also Permanent Secretary of the Executive Office and Secretary to the Northern Ireland Executive, said he remains committed to “leading effectively” in the absence of a Stormont government and in the face of Brexit.

“I pledge to do all I can to ensure the Northern Ireland Civil Service works effectively with the city to help Derry-Londonderry fulfil its potential. We may not be able to do all that you ask, but we will work tirelessly to do all that is possible,” he told Chamber members.

Mr Sterling highlighted “encouraging signs” for the economy in the North West. He noted the impressive growth in visitors to the region (18% between 2015 & 2016); plans to expand Catalyst Inc; proposals to expand Magee Campus; the A6 and A5 projects; “exploring” improvements for Buncrana Rd; the above average telecoms connectivity; plans for increased gas provision; the relocation of DAERA HQ to Ballykelly; continued investment in urban regeneration; and the drive for a City Deal for Derry.

“I commend you for the clear consensus about what is needed to develop the city and the North West region. That will stand you in good stead,” he told those in attendance.

Referring to the absence of a NI Executive, Mr Sterling said it is “fundamentally wrong” for civil servants to have to make choices about the allocation of resources – a role which is the “proper preserve” of democratically-elected ministers.

He added: “However, in the absence of ministers, we are not going to stand aside. We will continue to deliver services as best we can. We are looking at each case on its merits, informed by legal advice,” he said.

Mr Sterling described Brexit as the “biggest policy challenge in a generation” for Northern Ireland, adding that “real progress needs to be made’ in the June EU Council meeting.

He met with Chamber President Jennifer McKeever and other key stakeholders in the city prior to the event to discuss issues surrounding the North West economy.

Ms McKeever said: “The Chamber is delighted to welcome David Sterling to discuss some of the prospects, challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for our city and region.

“In the absence of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, he is Northern Ireland’s most senior policy driver and it is important that he hears, first-hand, the concerns and aspirations of the North West business community.

She highlighted the current major transport infrastructure plans and the development of the Ulster University at Magee – starting with the need for faster progress on the graduate medical school at the campus.

She said: “The business community in the North West wants now what it has always wanted – an adequate infrastructure of roads, rail and air-links, and access to a skilled workforce led by a fully developed Ulster University at Magee.

“Businesses understand what our political parties seem to have wilfully forgotten – that we only all do well, when we all do well.”

Ms McKeever said the diverse gathering of business leaders joined with Mr Sterling to seek “some clarity, some sense of leadership and some honesty” on the challenges and opportunities ahead in the coming months.