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10 minutes with… Adrian McCreesh

adrian-jpeg1Mid Ulster Council is one of 11 super councils created in 2014 across northern Ireland to streamline local government and give it more powers. Adrian McCreesh, director of business and communities at Mid Ulster Council, talks about the region’s natural entrepreneurialism and the need for a stronger social sector

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On local economic development in Northern Ireland:

‘Previously local government had a very limited role in economic development, focused on job creation and business support. Now we have a larger geographical area, and stronger economic development powers. We have a diverse economy dominated by the private sector and by small and medium sized enterprises. This area is full of natural entrepreneurs’.

‘As part of our new economic development priorities we created the first economic development strategy for Mid Ulster and launched it in Stormont in October. We created a message – Mid Ulster is open for business.’

‘In this area 70% are employed in private sector, which is unusual for the Northern Ireland economy which is heavily dominated by the public sector. If you marry a small public sector with little foreign direct investment, the obvious answer for job creation is self-employment and entrepreneurship. You can see it in this area since the 1700s: we built things and made things. Our companies are still doing it today.’

On the social economy:

‘The social economy of Mid Ulster is not as developed as elsewhere perhaps because of the focus on private sector enterprise, but we have some great examples. Workspace Group is the best social economy model I’ve ever seen.’

‘We identified the social economy as a critical growth area and have devised a social enterprise programme and commissioned the Workspace Group to work with 14 of our local social businesses to help them grow and develop a more sustainable approach.’

‘Those social businesses range from regeneration-based businesses to the Superstars special needs café in Cookstown. We have put £30,000 into the programme and hope to extend it beyond the first year. The outcome will be that we have stronger, more efficient and sustainable community enterprises across Mid Ulster. As public sector funding diminishes the private and social sector have to step up and be more sustainable.’

‘I was previously employed in community development sector 25 years ago and I witnessed and saw the evolution of the community and social enterprise sector. There is still a misunderstanding and distrust towards the social sector with some policymakers viewing it as a threat or not a viable mechanism to deliver things sustainably. The social sector needs to be seen as a partner, but we have to be able to have healthy robust conversations.’

‘In the community sector the dance floor got very crowded to the point where the level of duplication was palpable and there is a sense that the social sector has been reluctant to change and move with the times. Given the austerity agenda hitting the vulnerable and Brexit bringing an end to EU funding we all have to gear up for change and look again at our business models.’

On deprivation:

‘As much as we value self-employment here, the lack of public sector employment means that we have the lowest wages in Northern Ireland. We still have serious pockets of deprivation and children going to school for their one meal a day. That’s the reality of this part of the world. We also have serious health inequalities and are the capital for heart disease.’

‘We hoped to get greater powers from central government over regeneration so that we could take a more targeted approach to tackling poverty – we had already decided which areas to target.’

On Brexit:

‘We are trying to assess implications of Brexit. If the volume of funding is not there we will need to take tough decisions to ensure the essential things – poverty and deprivation – are targeted. We hope that if the European door closes we will find other doors to open.’

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