Conor Murphy: Extra £2.8bn allocated during pandemic - but work goes on
A YEAR ago the New Decade, New Approach document outlined the priorities for the newly restored Executive. Within weeks this was set aside as we responded to the global health emergency and its devastating social and economic consequences.
My main role was to engage with the British Treasury, alongside my Scottish and Welsh counterparts, for additional resources to deliver efficient public services and deal with the pandemic.
To date an additional £2.8 billion has been allocated to bolster health and other public services, to protect vulnerable people and support businesses. Specific schemes were funded for taxi drivers, airports, social enterprise, the self-employed, and company directors among others.
Within my own department, over £330m was spent on additional rates support. All businesses received a four-month rates holiday and a full year of zero rates was provided to the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic - hospitality, tourism, leisure, retail, childcare, and airports. Recently I extended this full year’s rates holiday to manufacturers and also protected all businesses from being evicted for non-payment of rent until the end of March.
My department usually funds other departments to deliver schemes rather than delivering them ourselves. But we stepped up to help during the crisis. My department acquired new powers to support airports so that air connectivity can be maintained. Land & Property Services (LPS) repurposed to take on this additional role and distribute £10k grants to almost 25,000 small businesses. More recently LPS also took on new legal powers so that it could award financial support to companies in Derry & Strabane Council legally required to close for a few weeks.
The Localised Restrictions Scheme Support has since expanded to all council areas for a period of months. Delivering this constantly growing scheme has been an enormous undertaking and it has taken longer than hoped to process some applications. However to date, more than £113m has been paid to over 10,000 businesses. For a part of my department with no prior experience of grant-making, this is a significant achievement.
In the coming year, and with the roll out of the vaccine, I intend to return to the policy commitments set out in New Decade, New Approach. I will soon establish a fiscal council to examine the sustainability of public finances and a fiscal commission to review the Executive’s tax levers.
I had hoped the Executive would receive a multi-year budget that moved away from the austerity of the last decade and mitigated the costs of Brexit. Instead, we have been provided with a single year standstill budget.
Meanwhile the Conservative government appears to be withdrawing from its previous commitment to replace the Executive’s lost EU funding in full. This will make it more difficult to provide the stimulus necessary for economic recovery.
I am keen that the £1.3bn of investment committed to City Deals and the Inclusive Future Fund is delivered as soon as possible. Some £150m has been set aside for rates support in the next financial year.
My department is establishing local hubs so that civil servants outside of Belfast can work close to where they live. This will promote regional economic balance and impact positively on carbon emissions through the reduced travel to Belfast.
I have also re-constituted the membership of the Procurement Board to ensure representation from various sectors of the economy. It will bring forward proposals to ensure the £3bn spent on procurement maximises social value and benefits local business helping increase employment levels.
The early stages of recovery will continue to be challenging for businesses, but my department will continue to work constructively with other ministers, the business community, and with trade unions to meet these challenges.
:: Conor Murphy is minister at the Department of Finance