Business

Policy not pacts must be the focus of election

Trade NI’s Vision 2030 ten-year plan - which presented by the body's principals Glyn Robert (Retail NI), Stephen Kelly (Manufacturing NI) and Colin Neill (Hospitality Ulster at Westminster in September - should be required reading for election candidates
Glyn Roberts

MAYBE I'm being naïve, but I hope that the December 12 general election will start to focus on the economy and the policy priorities of local political parties, because it is policy and prosperity, rather pacts and personalities, that the business community want to see as the campaign moves up a gear.

Most of the parties' media coverage of the election has been focused on issues such as Brexit, border polls, equality and the omnipresent ‘Vote for me or you'll get them' rhetoric that continues to plague any election.

Yes, I totally accept that Brexit is the very large elephant in the room for voters. But the future of our economy is also important.

Retail NI members will rightly ask candidates how they are intending to progress the City Growth Deals; why is it that Northern Ireland has the highest business rates; and what are their plans for moving our economy forward?

How do we make Northern Ireland the best place in the UK and Ireland to shop, socialise, locate and to start a business? What do we need to do to make Northern Ireland an eco-system of innovation?

Fundamentally, what should our region have achieved economically, socially and politically by 2030? Big questions like these require big answers from those seeking election on December 12.

We need to break the cycle of limited economic growth and realise our true potential. We a need a major investment by the British Government and possibly the Irish Government and the EU to make this happen.

To enable a new Stormont administration to tackle all of these challenges a Prosperity Investment Fund should be established as part of a new Good Friday Agreement for the 21st century.

So, given that most of the key economic levers are devolved and can't be used, what can the Westminster Government actually do? Firstly, in the absence of Stormont, the Secretary of State sets the local budget and decides on the regional rate. Retail NI wants to see the new government implement a 5-10 per cent reduction in the regional rate for all local businesses, boosting our economy and high streets.

Given that small businesses in the rest of the UK pay a lot less rates than their Northern Ireland counterparts, such a reduction would go some way to ensuring parity with the rest of the UK.

In the last UK budget, the Chancellor established a £675 million 'Future High Streets' fund to support town centre regeneration. Through the Barnett formula, Northern Ireland's share of this fund was £20m. In our discussions with the NIO, we suggested that this £20m should be equally divided up among our 11 local Councils.

Yet Northern Ireland high streets didn't receive a penny of this fund. Out of all the regions of the UK, Northern Ireland has the highest shop vacancy rate and high streets desperately needed this vital funding. We want all parties to ensure Northern Ireland high streets and town centres get their fair share of this fund.

For all candidates we would recommend that Trade NI's Vision 2030 ten-year plan is required reading if they want a radical plan for the future of our economy. Please feel free to cut and paste as much of this plan (details at www.tradeni.org) into your party manifestos!

Those elected next month will have an important say in all those important issues. It might not sound great on a party broadcast, but the Northern Ireland electorate need to hear a lot more about local parties' plans for the economy and creating more and better jobs.

:: Glyn Roberts is chief executive of Retail NI

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