At a UK wide level, last week’s Autumn Statement brought forward a number of initiatives which are welcome and should help catalyse investment. However, it is very disappointing that there were no game changing economic initiatives for Northern Ireland specifically.
The announcement that full expensing for companies investing in plant and machinery has been made permanent will be welcomed by the region’s ambitious firms hoping to future-proof their operations and measures to support SMEs and sole traders will be crucial for the small and micro-sized business which make up the vast majority of Northern Ireland’s private sector.
Addressing the House of Commons on Wednesday, the Chancellor indicated an ambition to drive business growth and unlock investment but he fell short of announcing any specific economic measures to drive that growth in Northern Ireland. What is more, commitments made in devolved areas like planning reform, business rates and grid connection, which are urgently required here, cannot be acted upon locally in the continuing absence of an Executive.
As a devolved region, we have a particularly significant childcare challenge, so we had hoped that the Chancellor would take action to support Northern Ireland’s childcare sector and help working parents to enter and stay in, the labour market. From increasing the tax-free childcare allowance to building on the existing workplace nursery model, there is much that a Westminster government can still do to ensure that Northern Ireland is not left behind.
Our experience is in sharp contrast to other devolved regions of the UK, which, as a direct result of the Autumn Statement, are set to benefit from investment zones, levelling-up funding and direct investment in innovation. For example, in Wales there will be two new investment zones and freeport tax reliefs, while in Scotland, the UK Government is investing £10M in a manufacturing centre of excellence. In England, there will be new investment zones in areas like Greater Manchester, West Midlands and East Midlands, in addition to substantial funding for ‘levelling-up.’
Levelling-up is one area where the contrasts between Northern Ireland and other devolved regions are particularly stark. Because last week, we also heard that no money has been provided to Northern Ireland for levelling-up ‘at this time’ due to a lack of Executive and Assembly.
With 55 projects in England, Scotland and Wales awarded a share of nearly £1 billion, the decision to exclude our local organisations runs contrary to the government’s aim to stabilise and transform public services, grow the economy by levelling-up and provide the foundations for building a better future in communities across the UK. It has been confirmed that the money for Northern Ireland has been ringfenced but until it is released, innovative and impactful projects designed to create jobs and revitalise local communities here will be hampered.
At a time of such challenge, it is imperative that businesses in Northern Ireland are not left behind, and that our unique circumstances are both understood and acted upon.