Northern Ireland news

Executive signs off on New Year helicopter money for high street

Every household in the north will receive a pre-paid card to use on the high street in January.
Ryan McAleer

EVERY household in the north could be given at least £100 to spend in local shops as part of a £95 million economic stimulus agreed by the Executive.

The high street scheme was revealed as part of a £338m Covid package announced by finance minister Conor Murphy.

As many as 740,000 households in the north could receive the pre-paid cards in the new year.

Despite suggestions each household could get as much as £200, the amount of cash that will be loaded onto them is yet to be finalized.

But economy minister Diane Dodds last night confirmed that it will be based on similar initiatives launched in Jersey and Malta.

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It’s understood that Executive ministers were impressed by reports of the success of the Jersey scheme at a recent meeting of the British-Irish Council.

The Jersey case involved each resident given a ‘spend local card’ in September loaded with £100 to use as they saw fit within a two-month period.

It’s understood there was little restriction on the card outside of online shopping and gambling.

But there were reports in Jersey of some online retailers simply opting to take payment over the phone instead.

It’s believed the Stormont version will take around six weeks to develop and run for two months in early 2021.

The Department for the Economy said last night the £95m scheme would encourage people to shop local, putting much-needed revenue straight into businesses.

“The Department for the Economy is currently developing the scheme including the voucher amount and how it will be delivered,” said a spokesperson.

“Operationalising a scheme of this scale and nature is incredibly complex and officials are working hard to develop its parameters. It is anticipated that the scheme will to ‘go live’ in the New Year and will be subject to public health guidance.”

Aodhán Connolly of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium welcomed the initiative.

“It creates a virtuous circle of spending that will support retailers in the leaner months of January and February as well as being of huge benefit to those households whose budgets are already squeezed,” said the trade representative.

“This will make a tangible difference to the high street, to livelihoods and to lives."

Roger Pollen of the Federation of Small Businesses appeared less convinced by the strategy.

He said more funding should have been allocated to existing grant schemes for pre-Christmas support for traders, rather than an entirely new scheme designed for 2021.

“We need to understand what the Executive is trying to achieve by its introduction; whether to inspire shoppers to return to the high street, or to put money into the hands of those businesses that were forced to close,” he said.

“We need to see the detail to know whether this will be the most effective way of keeping businesses supported and ensuring their survival beyond Christmas, because the level of support currently available is not enough to cover overheads and necessary employer contributions required as part of the furlough scheme.”

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