Big ticket issues can be reasons to be cheerful

Artist's impression of the proposed new-look York Street following the interchange project
Glyn Roberts

WHERE do you even start with the big ticket issues that face the Northern Ireland economy in 2017? Business rates reform, Brexit, corporation tax, skills investment and a new Programme for Government are all huge challenges - but also opportunities.

Let's be clear again - the 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate is no silver bullet, and without real investment in skills and infrastructure its potential will be lost. In light of Brexit and the rapidly changing world economy we need to see a ‘reboot' of economic policy in the new Programme for Government toward a stronger focus on skills, infrastructure and radical reform of business rates.

There is also an extensive shopping list of major infrastructure projects such as the A5, A6, north-south interconnector, transport hubs in Belfast and Derry and the biggest one of all - York Street.

The York Street Interchange is not just about Belfast. It's vital for our economy and for the modernisation of the infrastructure of Northern Ireland. Congestion on this bottleneck is fast becoming a major problem for shoppers and freight transport to Belfast and beyond.

Just as corporation tax opens up the potential for more foreign direct investment, NIIRTA wants to see parity of focus on supporting local indigenous businesses to grow and how we make Northern Ireland a region which is a centre of entrepreneurship excellence.

That's why we want to see the Executive introduce a new ‘belt and braces' entrepreneurship strategy to include the Executive, Invest NI, councils, FE colleges, universities, banks and private sector, all working on an agreed plan. The Department for the Economy could take forward a new Enterprise and Small Business Bill to create the policy framework to create conditions for the next generation of entrepreneurs, particularly many more new independent retailers.

The Finance Minister has made excellent progress on bringing forward a new targeted Rate Relief Scheme for independent retail and hospitality sectors and we urge all-party support for his proposals, which are based upon a joint plan submitted by NIIRTA and Hospitality Ulster. This plan is not just about rate relief but about investing in the future of villages, towns and cities and two vital sectors who contribute so much to tourism, supporting local producers and above all, tens of thousands of local jobs.

On Brexit we need a clear plan to ensure the protection of tariff and barrier-free access to the €11 billion single European market, with its 500 million consumers and 26 million businesses. A top priority is to ensure that Brexit does not result in the hardening of the border and that no barriers are placed on trade or cross-border workers.

Northern Ireland needs some degree of special status in its relationship with the EU and we call upon the Executive and NIO to produce a draft model of what that will look like, which could form the basis of negotiations.

This year must see the publication of a radical pro-business Executive Programme for Government. With a competitive rates policy, modernised infrastructure and investment in skills, there is no reason why Northern Ireland could not be the best place in the UK and Ireland to locate or start a business.

A post-Brexit Northern Ireland needs to be a self-confident, outward looking innovative region. A revitalised retail sector has a key role to play in this new private sector led Northern Ireland economy.

2017 will also a year of huge change for NIIRTA, as we will shortly be undergoing radical changes to ensure we to provide stronger leadership for independent retailers, wholesalers and suppliers to our sector. Watch this space!

:: Glyn Roberts is chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) @NIIRTA

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