Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

Business rates: Power to the people

Basil McCrea, who is heading up the industrial de-rating campaign on behalf of local businesses, has just achieved what most believed impossible. He has brought together every political party in Northern Ireland in a common cause, forged an alliance between business bosses and trade unions, and forced an unprecedented re-think on Government policy from Secretary of State Peter Hain. Here, he explains how it was done.

People in Northern Ireland often feel powerless - there's a sense that our problems are so intractable that nothing can be done. And so nothing does get done.

It does not have to be like this. As a society, we have become so obsessed with the things that divide us that we're blinded to the fact that there are many issues on which we all agree - and the key to making progress is to identify those issues and for all of us to get together to get something done about them.

About a year ago, I was approached by a group of businessmen from the Northern Ireland Manufacturing Focus Group (NIMFG). They were desperately worried about a change in Government policy which they feared would put many of them out of business.

From 1929, manufacturing businesses were exempt from paying rates. This was to try to build up industry here and promote the local economy. Then, in 2000, it was announced that the exemption was to be removed. Industrialists protested, but nothing happened and their protests fizzled out.

But these business owners were desperate. We operate in a global market and they could not pass on cost increases.

The Government started to phase in the rates bills, with businesses having to pay a 15% contribution for 2005. By April 1 this was to rise to 25% and was already beginning to bite.

Companies were already talking about relocating on the other side of the Irish border to escape the new bills, and economists were estimating job losses of between 18,000 and 45,000.

They asked me to lead a new opposition campaign and I agreed.

Despite all their previous best efforts they had not got very far. I've always thought that business people and politicians are a little bit like husbands and wives - they speak the same language, but don't necessarily mean the same thing.

So often in Northern Ireland, we fail to progress because we don't communicate properly with each other.

When business people lobby Government they will usually drive over to Stormont, explain why they think a policy is wrong and then disappear back to their offices expecting something to be done.

They leave behind bemused civil servants who have no idea how - and, frankly, no means - to respond.

The rates issue at first seems worthy but dull - and so it was important that we somehow captured the imagination and made it into a hot political issue.

So we set about building a broad consensus on the issue right across the political and social divide. We spoke to every political party, explaining as far as we could the potential devastating effect this would have on their voters - every single one from Sinn Fein to the DUP was unstinting in their support, and all agreed to speak at a rally we called at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast.

We're used to knocking politicians, but our experience was very positive indeed. All parties gathered together key members for us and they were all keen to listen to and question the businessmen about their problems. The trades unions, Amicus in particular, also rallied to the cause. Our membership grew to more than 400. And, of course, the workers from all the businesses got involved as well.

Around 1,500 people packed Belfast's Waterfront Hall for our rally, which was preceded by a cavalcade of more than 140 lorries supplied by our members. This was yet another thing people told us could not be done. It was a fantastic event that united us as a group and made other people sit up and take notice.

There is something extraordinarily humbling about a standing ovation from 1,500 people. And it was actually very moving to see such a powerful alliance of political parties, organised labour, employer organisations, multinational corporations, local business leaders and ordinary men and women.

This was the turning point for us.

Up until then, the Government had rejected our demands out of hand. Everyone had told us we had no chance of success.

But we did not give in. We secured a meeting with Mr Hain and put a huge amount of work into preparing our case for him. He was clearly impressed and obviously struck by the unanimity of support we had achieved.

But, despite this, there was no result.

So we went to Westminster to gain the support of MPs with an interest in Northern Ireland, and there the union Amicus brokered a deal with Mr Hain to set up a task force to look into the issue. In the meantime, there will be no further increases.

We're absolutely delighted about this, but it is vitally important that we don't just leave it here.

We're proving that people are not hopeless and that we can affect events. It is all about building consensus. Building consensus is what separates real leadership from mere management and is the path we have to tread in order to build a better Northern Ireland.

The economy is the bedrock on which our future will be built and there are massive challenges ahead. We must address the investment requirement in skills training and infrastructure, and also examine how to make our businesses more profitable.

Only profitable companies can afford to pay decent wages, invest in new products and skills and compete in a fiercely competitive environment.

And while these challenges mount up, the world is most definitely not waiting for us to get our collective act together.

I was especially heartened to detect that there is an understanding among all parties of this central importance of the economy. Build it up and the solutions to most of our other problems flow from it.

Our experience with the industrial de-rating campaign proves that a united Northern Ireland working together can effect change in a powerful way, and that we do have much more in common with each other than we often think.

Of course there are many issues that divide us, and we have to acknowledge that - but progress is going to be made by campaigning on those that unite us. We need to concentrate on those many economic and social issues on which all parties agree and build powerful cross-party and business and labour alliances to progress them.

As for the rates issue, we've built a very powerful consensus and we will not rest until the issue is resolved. We are united, optimistic and determined to succeed.

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