Business in north believe ‘economy is back on track’

78% of NI Chamber member firms are performing ‘well or reasonably well’

NI Chamber of Commerce
Economist Maureen O’Reilly (left) with Brian Murphy (managing partner of BDO NI) and Suzanne Wylie (NI Chamber chief executive) (MATT MACKEY)

TWO in three businesses in the north (64%) believe their turnover will improve in the next 12 months despite the continued economic challenges they face.

That’s despite just over one in five (22%) admitting they are finding conditions tough, broken down as 14% just covering costs”, 6% “struggling” and 2% claiming they are “on the verge of collapse”.

And seven in 10 companies of all sizes are actively recruiting right now, where as well as a competitive pay packet, would-be candidates cite mental health and wellbeing programmes and hybrid-working as their main reason for moving.

The figures are contained in the latest quarterly economic survey (QES) from the NI Chamber of Commerce and business advisers BDO, which quizzed 168 firms with a combined workforce of 21,300.

In broad terms, most of the key indicators were positive in the latest report, which was analysed on the authors’ behalf by independent economist Maureen O’Reilly.

Two in five respondents believe the north’s economy will grow this year (though 39% fear it will contract) while the share of businesses which performed well or reasonably in the final three months of last year rose to 78%.

In an open-ended question, survey respondents were asked to share their top-asks for the year ahead. The most popular responses included a reduction in business rates/taxes, the return of a Stormont Executive and support with recruitment, as well as reduced energy costs and better energy security.

In a similar vein, when asked to indicate their top concerns for the year ahead, businesses cited the implications of rising business costs, recruitment/staffing, the lack of an Executive and lack of demand.

NI Chamber chief executive Suzanne Wylie said she is “encouraged” that the majority of member firms are starting the new calendar year with such an optimistic outlook.

But she cautioned: “It is also clear that to realise their growth potential, businesses have a clear and urgent set of asks, which need to be delivered by both a Westminster government and a restored Executive.

“So 2024 must be a year when the issue of spiralling business costs and taxes is tackled in a way that unlocks sustainable growth.

“With the Spring Fiscal Statement due on March 6 and the possibility of a restored Executive ongoing, if we get it right, the beginning of 2024 can be a springboard for growth. As businesspeople, we must work with policy-makers to ensure it is delivered.”

Brian Murphy, managing partner at BDO NI, added: “These findings clearly show a positive outlook for local businesses. With 78% performing well and two thirds of local firms expecting their businesses to grow in 2024, there is cause for optimism after an uncertain and challenging period for many.

“This confidence in business performance marks a significant increase from last year and, if delivered, will undoubtedly lead to growth for the entire region.

“Concerningly, challenges still remain around recruitment, resulting in 49% of companies currently operating below capacity. But we can take heart from the fact that 70% reported plans to create and fill jobs in 2024, based on both existing need and greater confidence.”