GB call centre is NI's biggest recipient under new London-controlled fund to replace EU aid
AN Oxfordshire-based call centre, originally set up to support a payday lender, was Northern Ireland’s biggest cash recipient in a new London-controlled scheme set up to replace EU structural funding.
Despite having no physical operation in the north, Banbury-based TieTa UK was awarded £1.82 million under the Northern Ireland tranche of the UK Community Renewal Fund (UKCRF), while Invest NI had its two bids rejected.
The loss of EU funding, in particular from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), has left Invest NI with a significant financial deficit for its innovation and research and developing (R&D) programmes.
Officials from the Department for the Economy (DfE) recently told MLAs that Invest NI has lost around £23m per year from European sources post-Brexit, significantly hitting its innovation programmes.
Invest NI’s two bids for an innovation voucher scheme and a R&D grant, previously funded by Europe, were both rejected by the Department for Levelling Up in London, now headed by Michael Gove.
Mr Gove’s department has described the UKCRF as a forerunner to the Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF), the UK Government’s long-term placement for EU structural funding.
But unlike other parts of the UK, where devolved authorities applied to the UKCRF, applicants from Northern Ireland, including private companies, were able to apply directly for a share of a £12.36m pot.
The result was around 15 per cent of the budget going to the TieTa call centre in England, to run ‘a post-Covid small business success programme’.
Previously known as TXT Services Limited, TieTa was originally part of the MyJar Group. It started as the customer services arm for sister firm MyJar Ltd, which specialised in short-term loans of up to £2,000.
The Financial Conduct Authority has described MyJar as “a high cost short term lender, otherwise known as a payday lender”.
MyJar Limited collapsed into administration in December 2020. During restructuring and rebranding across 2020 and 2021, TXT Services became TieTa and changed ownership.
Companies House currently lists three people with significant control of TieTa, all three have addresses in Monaco.
It has since branched into other contact centre-based services.
The £1.82m awarded to TieTa was more than double the amount secured by the next biggest recipient, Ulster University (£743,353), and three times the £619,681 awarded to Queen’s University.
The vast majority of the 31 UKCRF recipients in the north were charities, councils or education bodies.
The 51 rejected bids included the Catalyst Innovation Centre, DAERA, NI Screen and Cinemagic.
The Department for Levelling up claimed the six per cent share of the UKCRF allocated to Northern Ireland, is “a higher proportion of funding compared to European structural funds”.
It said the money will “pilot imaginative new projects across Northern Ireland, from skills building programmes for young people in Belfast, to improving employment opportunities for those in disadvantaged areas”.
It said TieTa’s project “seeks to invest in local businesses and skill development in Belfast, Newry, Mourne, Derry and Lisburn”.
Adding: “The prospectus made clear that applicants need not be based in the country or region in which the project is delivered.”
A spokesperson for the department said they were unable to divulge why Invest NI had failed in its two bids.
In a statement, Invest NI said it did receive feedback on its application “and understands the reasoning behind the decision”.
A spokesperson said: “We are continuing to work with the Department for the Economy to offset the deficit created by the loss of ERDF.”
Asked whether it is concerned over Invest NI’s failure to secure innovation and R&D support from the UKCRF, DfE said it had nothing to add to Invest NI’s comment.
In the pre-launch guidance for the SPF, the Department for Levelling Up said it intends to start ‘preparatory work with local partners on an investment plan for Northern Ireland’ during February and March 2022.
In a statement to The Irish News, the department repeated that the SPF “will at least match EU receipts, ramping up to £1.5 billion in 2024/25”.
But the devolved administrations have said they face major funding shortfalls.
The Welsh government said it believes Wales could be “close to £1bn” worse off over the next three years, while the SNP in Scotland has also voiced its concern.
DfE, Stormont's biggest recipient of EU money, traditionally saw around £65m per year of European funding streams flow through the department.
Its officials have told MLAs the new revenue streams have not aligned with the old, creating significant issues.