Belfast Telegraph

Michelin jobs axed: Energy prices have put Northern Ireland at disadvantage for years

By Liam Clarke

All the breast-beating by our politicians won't get away from the fact that Michelin yesterday announced that it was restructuring its European operations and we lost out.

That is a question for our politicians to reflect on as they struggle to reach agreement.

The company has set aside €280m (£200m) to finance this restructuring. Some will go to paying people off here, and at Oranienburg in Germany where it is closing a retreading facility. A plant at Fossano in Italy will close eventually, but elsewhere it is growth.

Stoke-on-Trent and Dundee will see 110 new jobs.

Why are we behind Scotland?

A couple of lines in the explanation given to staff by management stood out. "Our energy costs are too high" and "other European plants are still more competitive than us".

The facts of life on energy costs are that, here, large manufacturers pay 8.8 p/kWh (per kilowatt hour) compared to an EU average of 6.1 and 7.2 in the Republic.

This has put us at a competitive disadvantage for decades. As Unite said of the proposed Ballymena closure, "this devastating news is not unexpected but is reflective of the failure by the NI Executive as a whole to act".

The union says it met Jonathan Bell, the Enterprise Minister, in July but he has still not replied to its proposals. In fact, the problem goes back much further and has been raised repeatedly by the manufacturing industry, which still employs 80,000 - or nearly 10% - of our workforce.

"Energy drives the high operating costs" said Stephen Kelly, CEO of Manufacturing Northern Ireland. He added: "There has been complete inactivity on this energy issue for more than a year. We are now faced with a downturn in the market plus a strong sterling and we are vulnerable."

He explained: "Everybody is either reducing consumption, anything from changing light bulbs to revising production patterns. Those that have the ability want to generate their own electricity."

Bombardier, our biggest manufacturer, is trying to become completely independent by the use of solar panels and biomass. In other words, our most important companies find publicly available power supply ruinously expensive.

Power prices here have been a victim of 'not in my back yard' politics. Nobody wants an oil well, a wind turbine, any mention of fracking, a biomass plant or even too many solar panels anywhere near them. We are also a nuclear-free zone.

The result is more expensive power.

Often development is opposed on the grounds that it would destroy tourism, but we need some perspective.

Our tourism numbers are still comparatively low, the climate sees to that. The jobs are generally low paid, the sort where employers find the minimum wage challenging.

Our manufacturers, on the other hand, provide well-paid, skilled jobs whose wages support the retail and leisure sectors.

We need to build an economy that can attract them from abroad, grow them locally and keep them when we have got them.

No political project is more important than improving living standards.

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