Assembly could benefit from the Chamber's credible policy ideas
Too often, political and business spokespeople make glib aspirational statements of ambition. The aspirations easily encompass more jobs, higher incomes, improved productivity and world-beating competitiveness.
These aspirations are all too frequently unconnected with operational decisions, allocated to the responsible agencies and presented with a sequence of ordered priorities.
The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry (the Chamber) has, commendably and in an unusually focused, groundbreaking effort, set an example of the way in which a business organisation can initiate a constructive role in policy-making.
Too often, business organisations subscribe to a shopping list of ideas with inadequate regard for priorities, funding or operational requirements.
Often, the formulation of effective economic policy, including the adjacent questions of social and environmental sustainability, is avoided by generalised sentiments saying that "the Government should do more ... on taxes, spending, regulation or incentives etc".
The Chamber has opened the door to a more considered and shared evolution of policies and priorities that will form the foundations of the next statement of economic policy to be launched by the incoming (2016) Executive, with active decision-making ideas and partnership from the private sector.
This time, the policy preparation and delivery might embrace the actions of the regional administration, but also rely on direct involvement from the private sector, not acting passively as an interested spectator.
The Chamber's 'manifesto' is available at www.northernirelandchamber.com. The 16 pages are refreshing. There is better coherence in the thrust of the ideas.
There are flaws still to be tackled, but compared to other recent efforts, this is much more credible. The brains behind the Chamber proposals must be ready to drive the derivation of an Executive economic strategy in co-operation with the official agencies.
The Chamber has logically developed its proposals in the context of, first, a review of the current situation and, second, followed this review with a series of short and longer-term suggestions.
These proposals have been brought together in five generic themes: growing the global trade potential; support for long-term business investment; developing talents and ambitions for citizens; driving down business costs and taxes; rebuilding Northern Ireland's business infrastructure.
Underpinning, or overriding, the specific proposals, the Chamber headlines the need for: a stable political environment which will inspire business confidence; clarity on the reduction of corporation tax: a date and a rate; a society that provides opportunities for all.
The 40 proposals are a provocative series of positive ideas alongside, infrequently, some that are aspirational or unlikely. The ideas now need to be driven forward with implementation suggestions and the identification of operational priorities. The proposals recognise that delivery must come not just from Government, but also from businesses, business organisations, financial institutions, educational and skills providers, as well as inter-agency co-operation.
The Chamber merits congratulations for a series of (mainly) practical proposals. However, it does, unfortunately, stop short of ideas that might tackle a serious and growing difficulty.
The steps to grow the local economy inevitably call for adequate and larger financial resources. Success will hinge on a growing and sustainable budget. Even before the crisis following the welfare reform debate, the local budget was strained. Meeting the extra costs of a loss of corporation tax revenue is a challenge.
Now, with welfare reform stuck somewhere on the agenda, balancing the budget is difficult.
The Chamber should accept the challenge of offering advice to the Executive on where to find additional tax revenue, reduce spending and modify the costs of welfare payments. If it can tackle these issues, it will perform a further necessary public service.
Company report: Harland and Wolff Group
Harland and Wolff Group (H&W) is a diverse engineering business with a number of specialisms related to shipbuilding, heavy engineering, ship repair, floating production and drilling vessels for the off-shore oil and gas industry.
The company is a subsidiary of the Norwegian Fred Olsen Energy Group.
Annual turnover increased in 2014 to over £55m to reach the highest level of the past decade. The company report notes that during the recent year the company provided services to 27 different vessels, part of which came from the continuing relationship with the Irish Sea ferry operators, Stena and P&O.
Some of the other larger contracts included work on the Blackford Dolphin, a mobile offshore drilling rig and, later in the year, work on Borgny Dolphin and the Byford Dolphin. Other customers included Kvaerner Verdal, E.ON and Scotrenewables.
The reassuring feature of the most recent financial year is that after recording a loss in 2013, the company returned to profitable trading. The pre-tax profit when translated into the balance sheet was more than offset by the increase in the actuarial deficit on the pension scheme which rose to over £29m. Shareholders’ equity was negative at just over £3m.
The directors, in the strategic report, say that the results for the year were satisfactory after a serious adverse comment on 2013 when trading losses reflected cost overruns on specific projects.
Looking ahead in 2015, the report says that the focus is on securing sufficient levels of work at the right price in each of the sectors where they work to ensure a reasonably profitable position.
Average employment in the group decreased from 211 to 207 people. In addition the company employed several hundred people on a variable temporary basis.
H&W Group maintains a large defined benefit pension fund with assets of over £130m.