There were calls for urgent action on a number of fronts at the recent annual general meeting of the NI Quarry Products Association.
Main speaker of the night was Terry Ahearn, who was appointed Chief Executive of the NI Environment Agency in November. Terry spoke animatedly on his vision for a simplified approach to how the Agency takes on its work. His primary message focused on the need for environmental performance and commercial interests to come together to help deliver economic prosperity and in particular how the Agency can support the business sector in achieving this.
In his address, the Chairman Clive Grudgings spoke about the continuing difficulties in the industry with over capacity and lessening demand fuelling greater deficits on balance sheets.
But he added: “This industry will survive the problems we find ourselves in today – however most likely not in our present format. We will have to become a smaller more flexible, dynamic and profitable industry sized more in relation to a workload we know will be on the table whether that be cement, concrete, asphalt or quarried stone.
“We cannot continue as we have done over the past number of years with our hopes and expectations fixed permanently on Public Sector spending – our owners, Managing Directors and Shareholders need to be leaders and take these difficult decisions if we are indeed to have any kind of positive future.
“The next few years will remain a difficult time for our Industry but I for one am pretty confident that by working together we will find a way through our difficulties. It is up to us all to ensure we have the will.”
His words were echoed by Regional Director Gordon Best who added: “It is so easy to lose hope and confidence for the future when we look around us at the continuing financial crisis both at home and across the world. The future expectation of continuing austerity measures, spending cuts, rising raw material and energy costs, lack of cash flow and increasing bad debts. Where does it all end I hear many saying? I believe it can end when we decide it is going to end!
“As an industry we must work together to ensure a sustainable future. The message coming out of our All Island capacity analysis for the construction material supply sector is stark. The levels of structural over capacity must be addressed. The fact that many SMEs are now financing their businesses through personal or family financial reserves means many are existing on borrowed time. The need for better financial management and credit control within our industry is now a fact for survival. The opportunities for creating collaborative networks, regardless of size of company, to work on non-competitive matters now exist and have Government support.
“The priority for 2013 has to be jobs, jobs, jobs. The employment and economic multiplier benefits that investment in infrastructure can bring to the local economy are well documented. Construction provides 28.5 jobs per £1 million of output.”
Mr Best went on: “A number of areas give reasons for optimism. The massive growth potential of the food/ agri sector on the island of Ireland and the subsequent infrastructure it will require to facilitate that growth. The growing renewable energy sector both on land and at sea will demand huge quantities of aggregates and concrete. The continuing demand for social and affordable homes and the urgent need for maintenance of our roads network, schools and health estates will help sustain what will be a smaller but more sustainable materials supply industry.
“I firmly believe that the minerals and gas extraction potential of Northern Ireland offers great opportunities for the Northern Ireland economy and indeed the QPANI. The QPANI, CEF, FMB, and other Construction Industry Group (CIG) member organisations are now being listened to at the very highest level through our participation in the All Party Group on Construction at Stormont. What other Industry grouping can attract interest that gets six Executive Ministers around the table at one time, twice in one year?”
He then went on to list some priorities for 2013:
Urgent changes to the planning system to speed up planning and delivery of important economic and job creating projects.
Urgent action by Government Construction and large private sector clients to stop sub-economic tendering and improve cash flow into the construction industry supply chain.
Continued pressure placed on Banks to improve credit availability.
The end to the “not in my back yard” mentality of many in Northern Ireland.
Urgent action to increase the use of private finance in infrastructure investment as is currently happening in other regions of the UK.
Urgent reappraisal of the Green New Deal that we continue to believe offers good opportunities to leverage new jobs, reduce energy costs, and improve the comfort of homes.
In his closing remarks, Mr Best praised the work of the team around him. “In last year’s annual report I expressed my confidence that I had a Chairman of the calibre of Clive Grudgings working with me for the next two years. That confidence has grown and my thanks and yours to Clive for his support and guidance throughout 2012 cannot be overstated.
“I would also like to thank John Shannon and his dedication and enthusiasm as Vice Chairman that has meant we have had a very effective team leading your Association throughout this past year and our achievements are a testimony to that leadership.
“Last but by no means least I would like to thank the voice of QPANI, Fiona Taggart, our Office Manager. There is no way our Association would operate as efficiently, communicate as well and be respected as much if it wasn’t for the way Fiona goes about her work.”