We’ve recently been speaking to Mid and East Antrim Borough Council’s Chief Executive Anne Donaghy on the ambitious plans for the county…

Q. What was the genesis of your ‘Amplify’ 2018-2030 economic development vision?

In 2014 the 26 Councils in NI amalgamated to become 11 and Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, incorporating the previous Councils of Ballymena, Carrickfergus and Larne was established.  As a new council we wanted to create a cohesive Economic Development Strategy for the entire area.

[emaillocker id=”71749″]

In 2016/17 we suffered a major economic shock with the loss of two of our largest manufacturers Michelin and JTI Gallaher which resulted in over 2,000 jobs being lost in the local economy and a 13 per cent decrease in total GVA. As a Council we needed to put a plan in place to build our economy and ensure it was future proofed and during these challenging times we carried out extensive research, engaged with local businesses and commissioned a consultant alongside key partners to help develop the Integrated Economic Development Strategy.

The strategy process involved review and consultation on the area’s prospects, SWOT analysis, development of key priorities and an economic strategic framework, and production of an economic action plan and strategy.  

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council launched Amplify in 2018.  Amplify aligned closely with the focus, drive and strategic priorities outlined in the Northern Ireland Executive’s Programme for Government at that time and the supporting Economic and Industrial Strategies.

Invest NI jointly funded the Strategy and their Officers worked closely with Council as part of the development process. The strategy also included feedback from key businesses and stakeholders in the area and was a truly collaborative and “integrated” process.

At a local level ‘Growing the Economy’ is our number one strategic priority and was at the heart of our Amplify strategy when it was launched and is still a key area of focus for us in these challenging times as we try and recover from the pandemic and deal with the implications of Brexit.

Our determination as outlined in Amplify is to create jobs, support the growth of new and existing businesses, develop employment and skills opportunities and secure key infrastructure investment in our Borough, all of which are still relevant and part of our vision for growth today.

Q. How has Mid & East Antrim become Northern Ireland’s centre of excellence for advanced manufacturing and agri-food and how is the council capitalising on this?

One of the objectives within Amplify was that Mid and East Antrim would become Northern Ireland’s leading centre of excellence for advanced manufacturing and agri-food by 2030. We are currently on the path to achieve this objective through a range of targeted initiatives to support our key sectors.

Mid and East Antrim is an area synonymous with manufacturing, power generation and agri-food sectors. Despite the challenges and traditional industry job losses we have faced in recent years we have refocused our economic activity on the key growth sectors of Advanced Manufacturing & Agri Food technology.

We are home to some of NI’s largest manufacturing firms and global companies, our area employs some 20% of the workforce and the sector accounts for nearly £1bn in sales every year, the second highest in Northern Ireland.

We created the unique Manufacturing Task Force (MTF) an industry-led collaboration aimed at ensuring that we are the home of world-class advanced manufacturing and innovation firms.  The collaboration involved bringing together the expertise and skills of more than 65 representatives from manufacturing companies, industry bodies and the public sector to help map this sector’s path to renewed success. 

Mid and East Antrim also has strong traditions and capabilities, both in terms of agriculture, food production and processing.  With nearly 1,800 farms and over 190 food and drink production companies, our businesses contributed to £168m of sales in 2018 and £117m of GVA within the local area.  Agri-food contributes to the overall total of 10,000 manufacturing jobs in the Borough, including key employers such as Moy Park, Dale Farm and Cranswick

To support the Agri-Food sector we have setup a Mid and East Antrim Food and Drink Network, the recently launched Agri-Food Demonstrator Pilot Grant Scheme to support agri-food companies access support for small scale demonstrator projects, this grant scheme runs alongside Sprout, a new programme which helps successful applicants to the scheme find, refine and launch a brilliant business idea.

We as a Council are leading the way to deliver on our clean growth ambition aligned to UK zero carbon targets which has particular significance to our local economy given our strengths and focus on advanced manufacturing, engineering and in our farming and agri-food sectors.

We are working with a number of key partners in developing a hydrogen roadmap to place Mid and East Antrim at the forefront of the NI hydrogen economy and the go to place for FDI.  Key to this is skills development that is why we are pursuing for a Hydrogen Training Academy to be established in Mid & East Antrim working with the Department for the Economy and other key stakeholders to make this happen.

With Manufacturing and Agri food and the Clean energy agenda in mind we are progressing the new i4C Innovation Centre where there will be laboratories and workshops to enable key sectors innovate and develop their products and processes.

With our focus on key sectors, our joined up approach, involving private sector, local communities and central government departments, working collaboratively and being innovative in our thinking we believe that by 2030 Mid & East Antrim will have become Northern Ireland’s centre of excellence for advanced manufacturing and agri-food with a strong cleantech focus.

Q. What long term aspirations does Mid & East for town centre regeneration across the county?

MEA Borough Council is finalising new Investment Plans & Town Centre Strategies for each of the 3 towns in the Borough. Each plan is designed to take into account the unique history, role and existing spatial planning of each town; Larne as a key port and historical resort town, Carrickfergus as a heritage town, one of the historic Walled Towns of Ireland, and home to Carrickfergus Castle, and Ballymena, a traditional destination shopping town and regional public sector hub, with a strong manufacturing heritage.

For each town we have developed a series of aspirations and investment proposals, which set out to build on the historic roles, location and strengths of each town whilst also recognising the rapidly changing nature of physical retail and the increasing risks to town centres that this poses.

These proposals include;

  • Diversifying the mix of businesses in town centres, encouraging greater focus on quality niche and experiential retail offering.
  • Encouraging mixed tenure and mixed-use development of regeneration sites to increase opportunities for town centre living.
  • Increasing the range of reasons to visit the town centre and increase dwell time by supporting a greater mix of uses for town centres, including a greater focus on hospitality and providing opportunities for social interaction
  • Re-orienting each town centre to improve active travel and outdoor recreation opportunities
  • Improving the range of and accessibility of civic space in each town
  • Working in partnership with the town centre bodies and stakeholders Council is also developing new innovative programmes to regenerate and encourage footfall to the three town centres in Mid & East Antrim Borough.

ShopMEA is a revolutionary new marketplace platform, which will put local businesses, and any special offers or unique product ranges straight into the hands of consumers. Designed exclusively by app developers bubltown, on behalf of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council’s Town Centre Recovery Group, to support local business community, ShopMEA is due to be launched in the coming months.

The Council will continue to roll out a pavement café scheme, promoting café culture and evening economy activities. Support will continue to the hospitality sector to ensure businesses are supplied with the relevant guidance to develop new outside space and to regenerate spill out space.

Plans are now in place for the Council to introduce long-term pop-up shop space within vacant units. The project that has been piloted before will offer entrepreneurs the opportunity to test trade their products on the high street whilst supporting community groups to bring innovative activities to town centres.

Q. Could you provide an update on your three schemes being advanced through the Belfast City Region Deal?

The £80m City Deal investment for Mid and East Antrim is for the development of three propositions – Carrickfergus, Gobbins Phase 2 and the new i4C Centre, at the former St. Patricks Barracks site, Ballymena.

The Carrickfergus project seeks to regenerate, reposition and rebrand the town of Carrickfergus, placing it firmly on the map as an authentic heritage-led tourism hub and the ‘must visit’ starting point to the Causeway Coastal Route.  The regeneration is both about the physical fabric and appearance of the town but also about community confidence, wellbeing and cohesion.

The Gobbins Phase 2 investment will create a viewing platform and looped walkway that will support increased tourist numbers and create an added experience for the visitor.

With a collective tourism investment of £53m, the Carrickfergus and Gobbins projects will be used as catalysts to attract international visitors, to support local businesses.  Both projects will provide an additional 300 jobs.  These projects will support digital innovation and integrate principles of sustainable tourism and will be globally significant in their transformative capabilities.   

The new i4C Centre at the St. Patrick’s Barracks site will be the flagship innovation and CleanTech Centre for Ballymena and the Borough supporting company growth, product development and testing and allowing access to a range of advanced equipment.   The Centre will also have Grade A office space available to accommodate new businesses who come into the area.

The latest update on these projects is that all the Outline Business Cases have been submitted and feedback on these from the City Deal Executive Board is due by August 2021. If successful these projects will all proceed to casework approval stage in September/October with procurement commencing in October 2021. The timeline for completion of these projects is 2025.

Q. What is the transformative potential of plans to turn Ballymena Showgrounds into a 6,500-capacity stadium and centre of excellence for women’s football?

The opportunity to create a 6,500-capacity stadium will result in a venue                          

that will support international, European and high-profile local football matches.

The IFA have, in the past, been working with other football authorities to attract major European and international tournaments to NI.  A key element to that bid is a supporting stadium to the National stadium.  This 6,500-capacity stadium would assist the IFA in attracting international tournaments to NI. 

In addition, the stadium will be able to support the playing of the national team (men and ladies) at international matches, at various age levels below the main international team.

The stadium will also provide the opportunity to enable high profile cup semi-finals and finals to be played at a venue which is more conducive for the size of attendance which is normal at these matches.  This will create a better atmosphere and ensure that businesses which support the delivery of those high-profile finals will be able to maximise opportunities within the local Ballymena area.

In terms of creating a Centre of Excellence for Women’s football, this will help to further support the success of the current NI ladies football team.  They currently do not have a designated venue for their training and development and this stadium could provide a NI Centre of Excellence. 

As the success of women’s football increases this can help to grow the participation and interest in women’s football.  It is also anticipated that the NI Women’s Football team will be supported to move towards a full-time role. 

The opportunity to have the NI ladies football team based at Ballymena on a full-time basis can create further opportunities, linking into the new Northern Regional College, the new Leisure facilities and the hotel which are all part of the wider St Patricks Barracks.

Q. What was the experience of Mid & East Antrim council like at the recent Belfast & Northern Ireland Future Development Plans event?

My recent experience at the Belfast & Northern Ireland Future Development Plans event was excellent. I would like to thank you for involving us and providing me with the opportunity to showcase Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and our plans for inclusive development and regeneration within our area.

The webinar provided us with an ideal platform to highlight our council’s work to promote the development of employment space, improve connectivity in the borough, attract further advanced manufacturing and agri-food facilities and to highlight the inroads that we have made so far in the area of Cleantech and Hydrogen.

I was delighted to see that the event was so well attended and the strong interaction between speakers.  Overall this was a well organised webinar which provided excellent networking opportunities.

I would like to conclude by saying thank you again, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council would be happy to support any future events you would like us to attend or participate in.