Steady As She Goes For Arlene Foster’s Recovery Plans

Economic prospects for 2014 include higher turnover and extra employment in the private sector. The contrast with the four preceding years of austerity is sharp.

While the whole UK economy is recovering, there are some doubts about whether Northern Ireland will enjoy the same rate of recovery. Early indications are that the construction and manufacturing sectors may enjoy a recovery parallel to Great Britain but the businesses providing certain types of services, particularly in financial services, are lagging.

The improving local economy now needs to be supported and strengthened.

Arlene Foster, the Minister for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, acknowledges this caution. “After several difficult years for our local economy, 2013 has seen improvements to our economic conditions — with falling unemployment, more jobs, improving business confidence and increases to house prices. However, we cannot become complacent. It is important that we sustain the recovery during 2014 and build on the current momentum.”

The minister has a bigger agenda in 2014 than may have been expected. There are demanding questions in relation to the role of Invest NI in attracting investment, commitments to a search for steps to protect energy prices and ensure security of supply, a reconsideration of the terms of reference for the agencies encouraging tourism, and a conclusion on the future of the Consumer Council. One particular issue looms large. “I hope that 2014 will bring the long-awaited decision on corporation tax,” she notes.

“Until a final decision is announced by the Prime Minister, my Executive colleagues and I will continue to lobby hard for Northern Ireland to have the opportunity to set its own corporation tax levels. A lower rate would potentially transform our economy as it would allow us to further grow the private sector, improve local employment opportunities and enhance our export performance.”

The minister is aware of the projected plans by the European Commission to further constrain the ability of Invest NI to financially assist new investment. She said that “implementation of the new guidelines on regional aid, specifically the support available to large companies wishing to reinvest here, is a challenge, and I remain committed to securing the best possible outcome for Northern Ireland.

“Access to finance remains one of the most pressing issues for local businesses and I will continue to engage with the UK government, banks and other key stakeholders to ensure that Northern Ireland’s significant challenges in relation to this issue are addressed.

“Invest NI will also continue to support businesses through its access to finance suite of funds, which can provide over £140m.”

Strengthening Northern Ireland’s economic competitiveness is an acknowledged priority. “Export growth remains crucial to our long-term economic stability. During 2014, Invest NI will continue to focus on supporting businesses to export to new markets through its programme of trade visits, one-to-one support and in market advice.

“Helping small and medium-sized companies to grow their workforce will continue to be a priority to achieving our Programme for Government target of promoting 25,000 new jobs. The Jobs Fund has been a particularly successful initiative which is expected to exceed its PfG target for creating 4,000 by the end of March 2014.”

The minister will also be taking an interest in the progress (or lack of progress) in the reform of planning legislation as well as the provision for any new enterprise zones, provided that the legislative stalemate involving other ministers can be resolved.

Perhaps the most high-profile challenge in 2014 is the reconsideration of how to tackle energy questions.

Arlene Foster, with a degree of understatement, adds: “I am acutely aware that householders and businesses have real concerns about rising bills and I take those concerns very seriously.”

That is a glance over some complex choices of which we shall hear much more in the weeks ahead.

The minister has a formidable evolving agenda. ‘Steady as she goes’ would be an inadequate motif.