Using LPS data the most effective way to get money to hard hit businesses in the north west says Conor Murphy
FINANCE Minister Conor Murphy has said a scheme using data from Land and Property Services (LPS) will be the fastest and most effective way to support businesses in the north west hit by additional Covid-19 restrictions.
New restrictions for the hospitality, tourism and fitness businesses came into effect for the Derry city and Strabane district on Monday. The new regulations will last for two weeks, but could potentially be extended.
Belfast, Mid Ulster and the Newry, Mourne and Down districts have also reported a spike in infection rates in recent days.
Business groups have already called for immediate financial support for businesses forced to close in the north west.
In an exclusive interview with The Irish News, the Finance Minister revealed that LPS had started work assessing how data for rate paying businesses can be used to roll out a targeted support scheme for firms by hit by a regional lockdown.
Mr Murphy said the work commenced after the introduction of household restrictions in Belfast and Ballymena.
LPS data was used in the £10,000 and £25,000 grant schemes managed by the Department for the Economy, triggering automatic payments to businesses paying non-domestic rates.
The minister described it as “the best, most effective and quickest way to get money out”.
He added: “We already tasked the LPS with looking at some of the schemes that have been rolled out elsewhere for instant support for businesses and to start looking through their data.
“If you start with some bureaucratic scheme where people have to apply and provide evidence, by the time the support comes to them, we could be out the other side of this or in some cases, businesses, because they are already challenged, in the hospitality area in particular, businesses might not be sustainable.”
Yesterday Mr Murphy confirmed he had presented options to support the north west economy before the Executive, but warned the funding pot for intervention is limited.
The Finance Minister said he had written to UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak seeking an urgent meeting to discuss financial support.
The Executive has already allocated £1.7bn of the £2.2bn it has been given by the Treasury since March to respond to the coronavirus.
It still has a limited pot of £55m for a number of potential business schemes for taxi, bus and coach operators, along with travel agents, event organisers and newspapers.
Another £600m is ring-fenced centrally for the health response to the pandemic, but it must be spent in the current financial year.
If the Department of Health (DoH) isn’t able to allocate it in time, it could potentially be syphoned off for other Covid-19 interventions, with a ‘rainy day fund’ for businesses, among the ideas being considered by the minster.
Some £384m has already been given to Health Minister Robin Swann from the £2.2bn pot, and it’s understood that the DoH has sufficient PPE to last into the next financial year.
But with no guarantee of further funding from London until April 2021, the Finance Minister is understandably cautious.
“We have asked [DoH] to do an assessment of what they need and what they can actually spend within this financial year,” said Mr Murphy.
“If they can’t use all of that, then some of that becomes available for other uses. And should we require further interventions because of further restrictions, then at least we have something more.
“But we can’t bank on that, Health may require the full £600m and can spend, in their view, £600m between now and the end of the year. If that is the case, then the Executive have agreed that is held for them.
“We’re waiting on that assessment.”
The Finance Minister has also raised the potential for additional rates intervention for some sectors from April 1 2021.
All businesses benefited from an initial four month rates holiday up to the end of July. A limited number of sectors, including hospitality, tourism, leisure, small retailers, childcare providers and airports had the rates holiday extended until March 31 2021.
Mr Murphy said Ulster University had been tasked with examining a possible extension, but he said it would likely have to come out of the Executive’s own budget.
“We are already considering beyond the end of the financial year in terms of the possibility of rates interventions.
“But we need collaboration with the councils, because there is no point in the Executive taking initiatives in relation to rates and the councils deciding to hike rates themselves.”