Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Slew of positive economic data a sign of improving times

Margaret Canning, Belfast Telegraph business journalist
Margaret Canning, Belfast Telegraph business journalist

Good economic news is always welcome – and yesterday, there was an embarrassment of warm fuzzies to enjoy.

The claimant count fell by 700 in March on February's revised total.

And with 14 months in a row of falling claimant counts, we experienced in March a rate of decrease in the dole queues not felt since the far-off, pre-Good Friday Agreement era of 1995.

Even the long-term unemployed – usually the Cinderella of improving employment statistics, with no opportunity to share in the riches – enjoyed good news. Unadjusted figures showed that those who had been unemployed for a year counted for 46% of the total, instead of around 62% a year earlier. That must mean that there are finally opportunities for those who have found themselves signing on for more than a year, so ending a gloomy cycle of worklessness and despondency.

And that in turn will increase the numbers of people coming off jobseekers allowance after a prolonged period, enjoying the freedom of having cash – and spending it. And there's more (groan)... 2013 also marked the first year in which private sector output went up, according to the economic composite index.

There was much to marvel over, and even some good solid news of expansion from Craigavon, courtesy of Ulster Carpets, and from its neighbour Portadown, courtesy of Golden Cow. As a successful, clever exporter and a thriving adaptable food business respectively, you couldn't have found more appropriate poster children of an improving economic landscape.

But unfortunately, there wasn't enough to go round, and construction just didn't get to share in the spoils.

The construction bulletin showed that output fell 7.6% between the final quarter of 2012 and the same period in 2013.

Such bleak findings were at odds with Monday's purchasing managers' index for March from the Ulster Bank, which reported that the construction industry experienced record growth in job creation and new orders during last month.

The Construction Employers Federation was quick to respond to the doleful contents of the bulletin, and remind us that even the good performance of successful building firms is often due to a willingness to look outside Northern Ireland – most likely Great Britain and beyond – for work.

Managing director John Armstrong acknowledged that they never expected anything other than a bumpy road to recovery.

But he also called on the Executive to do its bit, particularly by starting to spend its £1.6bn in capital funding this year.

Right on cue, Finance Minister Simon Hamilton announced he was setting up a a sub-group of the Procurement Board to delve into how to improve delivering infrastructure schemes. Hopefully, the start of sustained good times for construction.

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