Belfast Telegraph

CBI boss demanding urgent action over Northern Ireland energy prices

By Margaret Canning

A taskforce being set up to address the challenges facing manufacturers in Northern Ireland must be "quick and action-focused," a lobby group has said.

Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell said he was establishing an advisory group to report on the challenges facing the sector, including energy costs.

It comes after French tyre giant Michelin announced it would shut its plant in Ballymena in 2018, citing problems including the high energy prices in the province.

Around 860 jobs will be lost when the factory closes.

The minister told the Belfast Telegraph the advisory panel would report back at the end of February next year.

As well as examining pricing issues, the group will also consider competitiveness in manufacturing and best practice, the minister said.

Nigel Smyth, the director of the CBI in Northern Ireland cautiously welcomed the prospect of an advisory panel.

But he added: "The group needs to identify and set out a roadmap of actions that can be taken over the coming years to reduce energy costs for our manufacturing sector.

"The CBI will be looking to engage at an early stage with the panel members."

Stephen Kelly of Manufacturing NI, which represents manufacturers, said the group's work needed to be "quick, action-focused and representative".

And he added that the panel needed to effectively represent users of electricity. "There is no local consumer representation on the Utility Regulator's board, so it would be important that any group established by the minister is representative of those who buy, not just supply electricity, otherwise it won't have their important input or confidence," he said.

The minister also told how he had met with NIE Networks, the System Operator for NI, and the Utility Regulator to discuss the energy costs facing business.

Mr Bell claimed the completion of the north-south interconnector would reduce costs by €20m per year.

And the Utility Regulator last month warned businesses and households here would "pay dearly" if the controversial interconnector was not put in place.

"While energy costs are, of course, more significant for some businesses, our overall business costs are lower than our neighbours - on average about 84% of those in the UK and 95% of those in the Republic of Ireland," a spokesman added.

"In most cases, lower labour and property costs counteract the disadvantages on energy and transportation costs."

The news came as the minister indicated he would use Northern Ireland's new 12.5% rate of corporation tax to woo potential investors during a trade mission to China next week.

Mr Bell is leading a group of Northern Ireland companies on the trip to explore how they can increase exports into the powerhouse economy.

The new tax concession was reached under A Fresh Start - The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan, which was agreed earlier this week.

The minister said: "There is no part of the planet where I won't be going with the message of Northern Ireland's low corporation tax."

He also dismissed reservations expressed by some Sinn Fein members over the affordability of the measure.

Mr Bell said that the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness had been clear in his support for the introduction of the levy.

But James McVeigh, chairman of Sinn Fein on Belfast City Council, wrote on Twitter this week: "We won't be signing up to any cut unless we can afford it, and we won't be able to afford it any time soon, comrades."

Belfast Telegraph