Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NI Chamber) has said that 2020 must see “an end to vague pronouncements, and a renewed focus on the details that matter.” NI Chamber President, John Healy, has told politicians that businesses need to see “immediate, substantial action to reinvigorate our stagnant economy, build new infrastructure, boost skills and lower the cost of doing business in 2020.”
Speaking on behalf of the business support organisation, which represents over 1,200 businesses across Northern Ireland, employing over 100,000 people, Mr Healy, said: “Following the General Election result, the Queen’s Speech and the reintroduction of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement Bill last year, the start of 2020 also promises to be eventful – albeit in different ways. Many will now hope that with the election over and a decisive result, there will at least be more certainty for businesses in 2020.
“As they plan for the year ahead, our members need confidence, starting with a shift in tone from our leaders, away from the politics that hindered 2019. The Brexit uncertainty, when added to the damage caused by the lack of an Executive at Stormont, means the local economy is also likely to deteriorate in the months ahead.
He continued: “Government must therefore move fast to boost the confidence of businesses, consumers and investors. Businesses need to see immediate, substantial action to reinvigorate our stagnant economy, build new infrastructure, boost skills and lower the cost of doing business in 2020. We need an end to vague pronouncements, and a renewed focus on the details that matter.”
Commenting on a wide range of specific issues that must be addressed in 2020, Mr Healy said:
“The election result has provided the Prime Minister with a strong mandate for his Brexit deal, which will therefore likely be voted through later this month – however this is only the beginning of a process rather than the end. Getting the detail of Brexit right is far more important than simply getting it done. Vital details still need to be negotiated with the EU around future trade arrangements and unless a comprehensive UK-EU trade agreement is in place by the end of next year, businesses could once again face a cliff-edge – and seismic changes to trading conditions equivalent to a no-deal exit. The incoming government must still act to avoid a messy and disorderly exit from the European Union, and to give businesses the clear, detailed information that they require to navigate the coming changes.”
On the political talks process in Northern Ireland…
“This is a critical juncture for Northern Ireland – business, education and health are facing more challenges than ever before and another election would simply exacerbate the problem. The business community needs an Executive making decisions, now. This is a time when we need mature leadership – leaders with vision and a willingness to compromise and help navigate the path to the future.
“NI Chamber and the businesses we represent will offer every support to all political representatives as the talks continue today – our Leaders must stretch themselves to reach a compromise and see the institutions restored on a credible and long-term basis. We look forward to working with future Ministers as they begin to address the damage caused by three years of paralysis at Stormont.”
A Minister for the Economy…
“A future Minister for the Economy must prioritise a number of strategies that are essential if we are to grow our economy. In line with the Programme for Government, the current draft Industrial Strategy from the previous Executive must be updated and implemented as a matter of urgency. This document, along with a new Investment Strategy, Energy Strategy and Skills strategy, is urgently required to provide a pathway to growing our economy in the coming years.
Addressing the skills shortage…
“With 8 in 10 NI Chamber members currently finding it hard to fill vacancies, addressing the skills shortage must be a key focus for the next 12 months. All members – agri foods to IT and manufacturing – have a big demand for skills. That’s compounded by our flawed university funding model. We need to be able to meet the demand by lifting the cap on students and encouraging more people into apprenticeships. An incoming Executive must also address the Apprenticeship Levy issue and ensure funds raised by the levy are ring-fenced for skills initiatives in 2020.
“Also, at a time of critical recruitment shortages, an Immigration Bill that allows businesses to recruit staff at all skill levels cannot be delivered soon enough. Westminster should waste no time in providing detail on the proposed points-based system, and must not lumber firms with costly delays or red tape.”
A Minister for Infrastructure…
“Infrastructure investment opens up supply chains, generates contracts for businesses, eases congestion of heavily trafficked roads and help companies move materials and goods more efficiently. We therefore must see a contractor awarded for the delayed multi-million pound York Street Interchange project so it can be completed for 2022. This priority, along with the North South Interconnector, must be given a final go-ahead as soon as possible. Businesses and employers need access to electricity in the most cost efficient manner possible, and a positive decision on the proposed Interconnector is key to achieving this.”
He continued: “A future Minister must also address the funding shortfalls faced by NI Water so wastewater capacity issues across the region can be addressed as a matter of urgency and prevent a building deadlock that is currently a possibility for our members in commercial development.”
Mr Healy concluded: “Businesses need tangible evidence that words will be backed up with deeds, and a real sense that they are not just being listened to, but also heard. It is only through partnership – businesses, community leaders and government working together – that we will achieve the growth and future success that we all want to see.
“NI Chamber will continue to make the voice of the Northern Ireland business community heard where it matters at Stormont, Westminster, in Dublin, in Brussels and by working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive, the NIO and other key partners.
“In doing so, we will continue to assist our members to promote and grow their businesses locally and internationally through our broad range of business support services.
“This year, we will continue to serve our members as we have done for the past 235+ years – with dedication, persistence and a total focus on helping them grow their businesses.”