How we can take steps to get our economy growing again
Stormont political parties now face the discipline of preparing an improved, more closely targeted economic Programme for Government to implement after the May election. The last Assembly election saw some improvement in the quality and content of the party manifestos but, even then, there were too many imprecise generic aspirations and too few well targeted action ideas.
A first requirement is recognition that, although Northern Ireland is enjoying a modestly growing economy and sustains a wide range of social and environmental services, the dynamic and momentum of change is too slow.
Put more bluntly, the economy is under-performing and policies are either too vaguely aspirational or too wide ranging to give practical guidance to decision makers and drive constructive change.
An essential starting point is a cross-party agreement to set priorities which live within the budget available through the block grant, along with any additional funds from other sources.
As a first draft, the highest priorities should include:
1. Taxation. Confirm the timetable for the introduction of the 12.5% rate of corporation tax and spell out the expected benefits, along with a statement on dealing with the consequential impact on the block grant.
2. Partially offset the financial cost of the corporation tax changes with an evaluation of other tax concessions affecting business, which should take account of existing de-rating measures and an assessment of the comparative costs of business rates between NI and other parts of GB.
3. Review the costs of business-related subsidies, to shift funds from deadweight allocations to proposals that are performance related incentives.
4. Stormont budget: Set out the main details of a four year Stormont budget for revenue and expenditure, including clear statements on the scale of capital borrowing for infrastructure development and the level of funding to be raised from NI sources, including the charges for local rates.
5. Challenge Invest NI (and the local enterprise agencies) to examine comparative evidence from other developing regions, to inform a reshaped corporate plan to enhance the effective influence of Invest NI (and the related agencies). Monitor any proposals, to ensure that productivity (or value added) improvements help to lift NI's international competitiveness.
6. Among the many constructive proposals for infrastructure investment, as number one, prioritise the Westlink-M2-M3 links.
7. Complete the investment in a modern motorway or dual carriageway for all the A6 to Altnagelvin.
8. Work with the Irish Government to build a dual carriageway for the A5 from Derry city to Ballygawley and then south to Ardee.
9. Agree with each of the universities a carefully selected series of advanced post-graduate specialist courses, using reputable international comparators. Use this to enhance the number of higher level places.
10. Rationalise the number of university and third level places where provision is duplicated and too small to offer improved quality courses, particularly in primary degree teacher training.
11. In a parallel change, bring university fees into line with those in England.
12. Enhance the planning to incentivise the delivery of skills and apprenticeships, building on the current unquantified approach of the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL).
13. Prioritise the efficient operation of the electricity and gas sectors, including more focused regulatory interventions to ensure speedy planning and pricing decision making.
14. Take the overdue decisions on the work and structure of the Housing Executive and housing associations to plan the necessary increase in building new social housing.
15. Realise continuing financial savings through the early leaver scheme in the public service.
16. Convert NI Water into a market-led trading organisation that can raise its own capital funds.
Northern Ireland would have better prospects of improved rates of economic change if these priorities were then formalised into the next Programme for Government.
Progress depends on collective 'buy-in' to agreed priorities.
Company report: D. Shannon Stewart
The company trades as Gordons Chemists and operates across Northern Ireland as a group of nearly 50 dispensing chemist outlets. The company is registered as D Shannon Stewart Ltd.
In the most recent year, to March 2015, the company has further developed its business by further acquisition of extra outlets while consolidating the acquisitions of earlier years.
The trading position continued to improve. Turnover maintained the large increase recorded in 2014 supplemented by a further small increase.
The recent increases in turnover have now been reflected in an increase in operating profit from £1.8m in 2013-14 to £3.1m in 2014-15. The business incurs interest charges on borrowed funds which, when deducted, means that pre-tax profits at £2.7m were lower than operating profits.
A feature of the accounts in recent years has been the impact of accounting for significant amounts of capital attributed to goodwill, in intangible assets, and the impact on pre-tax profits of annual write-downs of part of this capital each year.
In the absence of any dividend payment to shareholders, retained post-tax profits have re-enforced the balance sheet value of shareholders’ funds which, at the end of April 2015, were stated at £7.8m compared to £5.6m a year earlier.
Employment in the group increased to an average of 645 people. This compares with nearly 450 people until 2013, followed by an increase to an average of 636 people in 2013-14.