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Access to funds must be speeded up if economy is to be kick-started


CBI and its Northern Ireland director Nigel Smyth will have a critical part to play in aiding economic recovery

CBI and its Northern Ireland director Nigel Smyth will have a critical part to play in aiding economic recovery

CBI and its Northern Ireland director Nigel Smyth will have a critical part to play in aiding economic recovery

Rebuilding the local economy is both urgent and complicated.

Headlines are focusing on the appeal to the Treasury and Northern Ireland ministers to approve a workable scheme for devolving corporation tax. Tense meetings in London have taken place.

Corporation tax adjustments alone would be welcome but, in themselves, insufficient. There are a number of supportive actions without which the effects of the tax change would be minimised. Proactive plans for a major change in skills and training need to be developed. New planning laws and decision making processes for development projects are critical.

Now the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) has added another priority. Northern Ireland needs a better organised spectrum of sources of finance for businesses to enhance the growth potential of firms.

The report makes stimulating and critical reading. None of the main stakeholders, whether banks, government agencies, or business organisations can take comfort from the tensions, gaps and lack of adequate information that has been exposed.

The experience of the CBI is that businesses seeking funds are facing considerable difficulties. As the CBI argues, bank lending has not stopped, but the bar has gone up on risk. There has been, and is, a squeeze on lending to smaller and medium sized businesses partly because these businesses are having greater difficulty in demonstrating their ability to repay their borrowing. That difficulty is attributed to the lesser reliance by banks on the collateral of asset-backed lending and a switch to an assessment of the ability of borrowers to repay from assured estimates of cash flow.

Accessing lending for businesses is not only affected by the criteria used by lenders in particular projects, CBI adds that the present uncertainty about the overall health of the British and Irish economies creates an additional hesitation by potential lenders.

Evidence of the problems in obtaining funds has been assembled by the CBI from the experience of its members and the various institutions. In a powerful plea to the Northern Ireland Executive the CBI renews a longstanding request that the Executive, the CBI and all the relevant stakeholders need to have more accurate data on the scale of the funding gap linked to firm periodic evidence on what is happening to lending by the main banks.

To the disappointment of ministers, particularly Sammy Wilson, and business leaders, there have been many meetings with representatives of the banks, many requests for firm statistical evidence, but with little or no success in getting access to solid figures on what has been happening to bank lending.

The CBI acknowledges that there have been some extra efforts to support business investment. The several strands of the Fund of Funds now becoming available through Invest NI are welcome.

However, implicitly, the CBI wants a larger and more ambitious arrangement. Comparing Northern Ireland's experience with Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, there should be at least an additional £25m to £30m a year earmarked by the Executive to be used for functions from seed corn venture capital to a number of £1m+ venture capital investments.

Invest NI should be allowed budget flexibility and a wider remit in the advice or use of the additional funds.

To help make best use of existing and any additional funds, the CBI wants the Executive to establish a 'Liquidity Group', drawn from experienced financial professionals, to deliver improvements to both the supply and demand of finance in the short and longer-term.'

This 'Liquidity Group' would push to ensure that new UK schemes, such as the bank of England 'Funding for Lending' announcement, are made available through the banks here.

The CBI has tabled 20 recommendations to ease the path for businesses to find finance to expand.

It asks for a taskforce to produce an action plan by the end of September.

It does mean September 2012!