Businesses hope for Hammond budget boost amid Brexit uncertainty

Business leaders will be hoping that chancellor provides them a boost in tomorrow's budget
Andrew Madden

BELEAGURED businesses facing the prospect of Stormont limbo and the unknowns around Brexit are banking on British chancellor Philip Hammond offering them a nugget of hope in tomorrow's budget.

And as politicians begin the process of stitching back the regional administration, business organisations in the north have urged party leaders to down arms and get back to ensuring economic progression.

Confidence by both consumers and businesses in Northern Ireland, which had been surprisingly resilient in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, has seemingly evaporated.

Indeed just yesterday the malaise was underlined when industry figures revealed that sales of new cars careered off track by more than 11 per cent in the last month alone.

In the absence of a functioning Stormont government, with no regional budget in place, and given the prospect of Direct Rule or another election if the current political talks fail to bear fruit, business is in a state of flux.

Angela McGowan, the CBI's Northern Ireland director, said the new MLAs need to focus on forming an Executive.

"Economic prosperity and political stability go hand in hand,” she said.

"With the immense changes that lie ahead as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, the economic stakes for Northern Ireland are exceptionally high.

"To successfully steer us through this challenging period, and facilitate the creation of a competitive economy that can generate 50,000 new jobs by 2021, business needs a fully functioning Executive that delivers long term political stability."

Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA), echoed those sentiments.

"Direct Rule is not an option, because while devolution has been far from perfect, it is considerably preferable to government by unaccountable ministers and civil servants," he said.

"Our members want to see a Programme for Government, a budget and a Brexit plan. More importantly, the business community needs to be assured that lessons will be learned from this crisis to enable the economy to move forward.

"We need our MLAs to focus on solutions, not problems to this crisis and to see real leadership from our political parties."

Business and consumer sentiment remains at a low-ebb, surveys show

High-inflation rates are already predicted to squeeze consumer spending in the next few years, as highlighted by last week's Danske Bank forecast, which pointed towards a more spending conscious outlook compared to recent years.

Business leaders are hoping the Chancellor puts some meat on the bones of his pre-announced Industrial Strategy paper and announces initiatives to help businesses scale up, invest in plant and machinery and support innovation.

But Ulster University economist Dr Esmond Birnie said: “While we see the Chancellor present the UK Budget, the likelihood is that the decision-making process at Stormont will continue to be stalled.

"Our Executive Budget for 2017-18 is now seriously late, and there is a growing and unsatisfactory possibility that, by default, we will have to rely on a holding budget put together in the summer by civil servants.

"And the example likely to be set by Chancellor Hammond's Budget on Wednesday will pose some awkward questions for our politicians, such as how can Stormont balance the books over the next three or four years given that any easing of austerity could be quite small? How is the future cost of nursing and residential care for elderly going to be divided between families and the state? When will we engage in some radical reform relating to commercial rating? And we still on course for corporation tax devolution in April 2018?"

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