Business

Come on Stormont - show us your entrepreneurial spirit

It was great to see so many diverse companies among the Entrepreneur of the Year winners, including Stephen Vernon of Green Property
Conor Devine

LAST week the final of EY Entrepreneur of the Year aired, and it was great to see so many diverse companies involved and the many from Northern Ireland who also made the cut, including Brendan Mooney from Kainos, the overall winner.

But one individual who stood out for me, because of my property background, was Stephen Vernon of Green Property, who won industry category.

He is a real success story. Coming to Ireland at the age of 43 and turning around his property company, with the high point selling Blanchardstown town centre for €950 million earlier this year, underlining that the market in the south is probably the healthiest it's been for some time.

Conversely, the Northern Ireland property market is very different. This year I've kept a keen eye on what is a highly fractured property market and local economy. I've had lunch with solicitors, cups of coffee with agents, meetings with accountants, quick conversations with journalists, along with kicking stones with plenty of builders and developers whose wounds are still a little raw from the meltdown.

The general consensus is one of genuine concern and a recent conversation with a very respected colleague in the industry described the situation as ‘worrying, with the market being completely dead'.

There are three main issues at play - Brexit, access to capital and confidence.

We are only four months post the Brexit decision, but it has already hit our economy and property market hard with the worst likely to come. Experts predict it may take three to five years for the UK to come back. Brexit has impacted Northern Ireland - and time will only tell how severely.

In the last few years it has become incredibly difficult for investors and property developers to raise money. Banks, despite what they say in public, are still trying to repair their broken balance sheets. One silver lining is that alternative lenders are beginning to enter the market place to help fill the void.

And there is a also complete lack of confidence. One example is a good friend of mine is considering buying a house in Magherafelt and is concerned that if he was to buy now then prices will fall in 12 months. He has decided to hold off. This was not the case a year ago as there was more confidence at that time.

So what now? Well, we still face very uncertain times. We are in the midst of a Tory austerity programme where one of its main objectives is to rationalise the public sector. Well over a third of the north's workforce works in the public sector, so there will be further job losses.

Corporation tax was potentially a game changer, but since Brexit, it would be fair to assume foreign direct investors are unlikely to come to Belfast when the alternative is to reside in the EU with similar benefits.

Recently I found out that Belfast City Council has its own £18 million loan fund. It's a great initiative where the Council assists property development in the city and one to be commended.

But why doesn't the Executive look at something similar and engage with the Treasury? A structure could be put in place to provide finance to proven property developers and investors to progress property development across Northern Ireland. Let's call it the NI Real Estate Loan Fund (NIRELF).

This would certainly stimulate the local economy with jobs and there would be a huge impact on local and international confidence.

Such a viable scheme could lend at a commercial rate, in the region of 6 per cent. The Treasury could lend the money to the NIRELF at a low rate of interest, enabling the Executive to get a margin on the money they allocate to investors and property developers, along with the obvious advantages that come with the development projects.

An initiative like this should be seriously considered. So perhaps it's time the Executive showed an entrepreneurial spirit and looked at something credible to change our dire situation.

:: Conor Devine (conor@gdpni.com) is principal of GDP Partnership (@EquityExpertsNI) which specialises in mediating with banks.

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