Faced with the downturn in demand for funds committed to projects by Invest NI, ministers in the Executive have come together to support the economy in a Boost for Business campaign.
The Boosting Business campaign is a complementary scheme offering additional support to existing schemes (or their expansion) although, for clarity, it is not a substitute for the key structural policy ideas which must emerge in the Programme for Government.
Many businesses are facing difficult trading conditions and exceptional steps to off-set some of the difficulties are welcome.
Schemes to boost business face a major hurdle - there is less business being done because there is a recession. Boosting business means finding acceptable orders when there are fewer orders to be found. In an export-dependent region such as Northern Ireland, finding new (or more) business remains a competitive role for the manager of each business.
The single most important action to boost business in a recession is for a company to improve its ability to compete. If there are fewer orders in the market place, then success means being able to increase market share or find orders in new markets against other competitors.
Faced with these challenges, the Executive has set an open-ended agenda to help boost business. The main response lies with, or through, Invest NI.
Invest NI describes Boosting Business under two main themes: a) "looking at our existing products and services to see if, and how, we can make adjustments to them in order to either make them available to a wider customer base or make them easier for businesses to benefit from", and b) "seeing what new products or services we may be able to introduce to help businesses".
The open-ended agenda is somewhat useful, but Invest NI will be constrained by features such as value for money, avoiding unfair subsidies and breaching EU competition rules on assistance with normal operational costs or unfair market distortion.
The emphasis on the first specific announcement, which shows how market development might be helped, is useful.
This included an outline of different options:
- For companies new to research and development it will be easier to get support and it will broaden and enhance technical support for projects, as well as increasing the costs on which support can be provided.
- To encourage more exporters, free market research will be provided for a first visit along with an enhanced contribution towards other market research.
- More funding will be available for businesses to explore new markets, including funding for return visits between trade missions along with support for additional days to visit other regions.
- Support for companies to take part in key exhibitions in Great Britain is being reinstated.
In another scheme to develop expertise in eligible small businesses, Invest NI is now willing to help companies enhance their skills levels by providing support for small to medium-sized enterprises seeking consultancy and mentoring support with an increased percentage contribution from Invest NI.
In parallel, Invest NI is also looking at ways in which programmes, such as the Short-Term Employment Scheme, can be widened to encourage a greater number of businesses to make use of this type of support.
These ideas are exceptionally open ended. Experience will show how flexible Invest NI will be allowed to be. They come at the same time as Invest NI is finalising additional allocations encouraging venture capital and seeking co-operation from the banks to offer more loans for eligible businesses, associated with Government guarantees.
Invest NI may be able to help businesses which cannot get adequate bank finance. Where bank lending is, for now, not readily available, Invest NI is ready to consider alternative financing support.
In total, this is a much more flexible approach from what seems to be an underspent Invest NI budget. Businesses should now be encouraged to make new proposals to test the scope of these 'boosting' measures.