Mel Stride: Tourism industry vital to help an energised Northern Ireland thrive
Yesterday I was very pleased to visit Belfast. Walking through the city centre and the Titanic Quarter, it was clear just how much Northern Ireland has changed since the first time I visited some 25 years ago - all of that change for the better.
In just two short decades, peace has unlocked prosperity, transformed neighbourhoods, and brought a new generation closer together.
From what I saw of Belfast, it is obvious that Northern Ireland is where not only people want to live and work, but where companies come to thrive, and increasingly where tourists flock to visit.
Beyond the boundaries of Belfast, it is obvious why the geographic tapestry - from the undulating pastures and stunning lakes of Co Fermanagh to the unrelenting beauty of the Causeway Coast - captivates visitors.
As a Treasury minister, I am especially proud of the success being achieved by the Northern Ireland film industry, with Game of Thrones expected to bring in over £200m to the economy.
None of this has been accidental of course. It was a conscious choice of UK Government to support the creative industries through tax reliefs. These tax reliefs, worth over £700m in 2016/17 to the UK's creative industry, work to drive investment, create jobs, generate tourism and enhance the cultural fabric.
As the minister responsible for the oversight and direction of the UK tax system, I want to keep the tax system robust and reliable, but also to ensure it supports economic activity to the maximum possible extent. That is why, in 2013, the UK Government devolved long haul Air Passenger Duty (APD) to the Northern Ireland Executive which, in turn, immediately reduced it to zero, levelling the playing field with Ireland and improving the competitiveness of the Northern Ireland economy.
But the Government is keen to understand how we might be able to go further in supporting Northern Ireland's vital tourism sector - a bedrock of the Northern Irish economy.
As part of this work, at this year's spring statement, we launched a call for evidence on the impacts of both APD and VAT on tourism in Northern Ireland and I urge everyone in the tourism sector to share their views on this vital subject.
Ideas are already flowing and yesterday, I chaired a round-table with representatives from the business and hospitality sectors in Belfast to discuss the impact of APD and VAT on businesses and the opportunities they believe exist for reform.
I will ultimately be led by the quality of the evidence I receive from respondents in order to determine whether these levers are the right ones to propel tourism.
At the Autumn Budget 2017, Northern Ireland benefited from an increase of over £660m to the budget of a Northern Ireland Executive.
We can do all this because our economy has turned a corner, unemployment in Northern Ireland is at 3.5%, the third lowest of all the regions in the UK, inflation is falling, real wages are set to rise and our national debt is set to start falling as a percentage of GDP, thanks to the hard work of people across the country.
Unlike Game of Thrones, where the House of Lannister recklessly borrows from the Iron Bank of Braavos while inequality plagues Westeros, this Government has chosen a more fiscally responsible course to build an economy that works for everyone.
An essential part of that endeavour for Northern Ireland is to offer full support its tourism industry. My visit has reinforced my belief that there is the energy, the engagement and the ideas for us to do still more to support tourism in Northern Ireland and I look forward to considering the results of the consultation.
Mel Stride is the UK's Financial Secretary to the Treasury. He was visiting Northern Ireland to learn about its tourism industry and to urge the public and organisations to get involved in a consultation on APD and VAT.