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Northern Ireland's falling sales to GB consistent with manufacturing woes



Causeway Coast and Glens recorded bumper growth of 9.1% (stock photo)

Causeway Coast and Glens recorded bumper growth of 9.1% (stock photo)

Northern Ireland Tourist Board

Causeway Coast and Glens recorded bumper growth of 9.1% (stock photo)

Every year, a couple of weeks before Christmas, the UK statistics body - the Office for National Statistics (ONS) - publishes the latest figures on the size of the whole economy as well as the size of the regional economies.

We will have an obvious interest in the figures relating to Northern Ireland in particular. Additionally, on Wednesday, the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) published the latest data on the trading performance of the local economy.

Are these figures a cause for pre-Christmas cheer or depression?

Well, the results are quite mixed and some of the figures do need to be handled with care. Taking the ONS data, first the good news. Total output in both the UK and Northern Ireland economies continued to grow last year. Up by 1.9% in the UK and 1.7% in Northern Ireland.

The latter result is an average for the whole of Northern Ireland. The ONS data suggest a marked variation across local council areas.

Causeway Coast and Glens recorded bumper growth of 9.1% and Mid and East Antrim a decline of 6.1%.

A qualification is in order: data at the council area include a higher degree of estimation and may be less reliable. Mid and East Antrim probably does reflect the impact of the JTI plant closure.

Northern Ireland continues to be one of the lowest output (gross value added) per head UK regions: £21,172 in 2017 compared to a UK average of £27,555.

Admittedly, both Wales (£19,899) and the North East of England (£20,129) were even lower.

Returning to the sub-regional data, the Belfast City Council area has an apparently very good result, in that it was placed in the top five local authority areas across the UK in terms of output per head.

That result was based on a very strong 'commuter effect' - much of the apparently high output per person generated in the Belfast city area was actually produced by people commuting in from other council areas. Conversely, the very low measured output per head in Ards and North Down was either a mistake or a result of residents commuting out to other areas.

A more sobering result was in terms of output growth since 2009.

The entire Belfast city region (that is, Belfast plus the five other councils for the purposes of the City Deal bid) registered gross value added growth of 9.5% compared to 13% in the Cardiff City area, 13.7% in the Edinburgh City area and 28.4% in the Greater London Authority area.

Similarly, growth in Derry-Londonderry lagged behind that in most GB cities over the last decade.

Governments and economists often tell us that if we want to get richer we must export and sell more outside our region. Hence the great interest in the Broad Economy Sales and Export Statistics produced by NISRA for 2017.

One negative shock is just how much sales from Northern Ireland to GB declined during 2017. If the NISRA figures are taken at face value, these declined by £2.9bn to £11.3bn.

A percentage decline of about one-fifth may be hard to believe, but this is consistent with the closure of the sales intensive JTI cigarette plant.

It is also consistent with the latest NISRA data, showing that turnover of the local manufacturing sector dropped by about £2.4bn.

At the same time, Northern Ireland businesses may have overcome some of the Brexit uncertainties and benefited from a relatively low sterling exchange rate to increase total exports - that is, sales beyond the UK - by £0.5bn to £10.1bn.

Sales to the Republic of Ireland were up by about £0.5bn to £3.9bn, but those to the rest of the EU declined by about £300m to £2bn.

Exports to the world beyond the EU grew by about £200m, to £4.3bn.

  • Dr Esmond Birnie is senior economist at the Ulster Business School

Belfast Telegraph