Business

Special economic zone status could be 'tremendous benefit' to north says FSB head

Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB). Photo: Bill Smyth
Gareth McKeown

The UK head of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has said it could be a "tremendous benefit" if Northern Ireland becomes a special economic zone within the UK post-Brexit.

Speaking exclusively to the Irish News on a visit to Belfast, Mike Cherry, who represents over 160,000 small businesses across the UK, believes such an arrangement, which would possibly see the north remain within the EU Single Market and Customs Union could be a boost to the north's economy.

"Clearly it is an interesting concept and needs to be looked at in more detail to see the great benefits that it would bring to the whole of the north," Mr Cherry said.

"It's not the first time free trade zones have been mooted, we've had others and I think there could well be a tremendous benefit if that was looked at and if it is proven to be a good opportunity then why not."

On a visit to the north, which included Ulster University's Magee Campus in Derry and Maghera-based manufacturer Specialist Joinery Fittings, the FSB national chairman, who sits on the Prime Minister's business advisory council and has a strong ear in government, outlined a number of issues facing small businesses in the north, with the skills shortage and infrastructure among the most pressing.

Mr Cherry believes the skills issue is a "fundamental problem" that must be dealt with, while a lack of investment in infrastructure is holding back businesses in the north.

"I'm absolutely sure about that, because the vast majority of small business, the roads that they use to do their business just aren't seeing enough put in there quickly enough to support them. So it's increasing costs, increasing the time of journeys, it's not facilitating the ability of businesses to grow as much as they could and then of course you've got the issue around (poor coverage or slow) broadband."

Another key issue raised by members in the north is the lack of a Stormont Executive and Mr Cherry re-iterated calls for the restoration of devolution for the sake of local business.

"Let's not forget it's business, small business in particular, that underpins the local community and wider economy so it is crucial that some of these local decisions in the north are actually being taken," he said.

Referring to the Brexit process and the recently published technical papers Mr Cherry acknowledged it is "clearly unhelpful" to suggest small businesses in the north contact the Irish Government in the no event of a no deal. That being said he believes small businesses in the north can deal with the impact of a "severely damaging" no-deal Brexit.

"I don't think it would be disastrous," he said.

"As we know small businesses are incredibly resilient. What they want is more clarity, sooner rather than later. Whatever is thrown at them they just get on with things and deal with it. I think the frustration at the moment is the fact that they want to know what they have to comply with and no one can give them the answer at the present time."

"Clearly part of my role is getting out and meeting members on the ground and I've been very encouraged to see the innovation, the way that businesses over here do seem to be growing their businesses despite the lack of an Assembly and their resilience, innovation and aspirations need to be supported," he added.

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