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Chancellor insists Brexit deal will help economy and reveals Londonderry talks 'progressing'

Chancellor Philip Hammond addressing Parliament during his Spring Statement
Chancellor Philip Hammond addressing Parliament during his Spring Statement

By Margaret Canning and PA

Business groups in Northern Ireland have given a lukewarm welcome to the Chancellor's Spring Statement.

Philip Hammond used his Spring Statement to urge MPs to back a Brexit agreement after the budget watchdog slashed this year's growth forecast.

The Office for Budget Responsibility predicted economic growth of 1.2% this year - a downgrade from the 1.6% forecast at the Budget in October 2018.

Delivering his statement after MPs emphatically rejected Theresa May's Brexit deal for a second time on Tuesday night, the Chancellor said the issue was "damaging our standing and reputation in the world".

He warned: "Leaving with no deal would mean significant disruption in the short and medium-term and a smaller, less prosperous economy in the long-term, than if we leave with a deal.

"Higher unemployment; lower wages; higher prices in the shops. That is not what the British people voted for in June 2016."

But there was little of relevance to Northern Ireland in the budget yesterday though Mr Hammond said that negotiations for a City Deal for Londonderry were progressing.

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Headline measures included £100m extra this year for police forces in England to pay for overtime aimed at addressing the "epidemic" of knife crime, a £3bn affordable homes guarantee scheme, to support delivery of around 30,000 homes and a Future Homes Standard setting out the end of fossil-fuel heating systems in all new houses from 2025

Mr Hammond said rejecting an immediate no-deal Brexit and extending Article 50 could help find a "deal we can collectively support".

The OBR forecast growth of 1.2% this year, 1.4% next year and 1.6% in the following three years.

Despite this year's downgrade Mr Hammond said: "Cumulative growth over the five years is now slightly higher than the Budget forecast."

The Chancellor said there was "good news" on the public finances, with borrowing forecast to reach £13.5bn in 2023/24, its lowest level in 22 years. Debt is forecast to be lower in every year than predicted at the Budget, falling to 82.2% of GDP next year, then 79%, 74.9% and 74% in the following years and 73% in 2023/24.

But the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the statement had "little to offer, especially with regards to Northern Ireland". Chamber chief executive Ann McGregor said: "Derry/Londonderry will welcome Philip Hammond's comment that the negotiation of a City Deal for Derry is 'progressing', despite him failing to provide further details.

"NI Chamber is fully supportive of the Derry/Londonderry City Deal and we hope this gets over the line soon. The Chancellor commented that a no-deal Brexit will result in a 'significant' short to medium-term reduction in productivity.

"This is extremely concerning, especially for Northern Ireland, which already has productivity levels amongst the worst in Europe and the lowest across the UK regions. This is yet another reason why we cannot afford a 'no-deal' Brexit scenario and why Parliament must take concrete action tonight and in the coming days to avoid that situation."

But Sean Lavery, partner at business advisory firm BDO NI, said that a commitment by the Chancellor to tackle late and poor payment practices would be "commended by many in NI and beyond". The Chancellor said company audit committees would be required to review payment practices, and report on them in annual accounts.

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