Belfast Telegraph

Tough future for economy despite industrial boost

By Clare Weir

Despite a rise in export orders and manufacturing sales in the last three months, the Northern Ireland economic outlook is still "extremely challenging" according to a new poll.

The latest quarterly economic survey by the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, which received 495 responses, showed "generally disappointing" results and experts have called for improved transport links and lower corporation tax to help stem the continuing stagnation.

The Chamber has also now linked up with business advisers BDO to launch a new programme Growth First to stimulate growth.

Some 33% of respondents to the survey reported a rise in export orders, up from the previous two quarters and 36% of manufacturers reported an increase in sales. Exports - around 58% go to Great Britain - were particularly strong in the food sector and the region fares better in terms of advanced orders compared to the rest of the UK, despite coming from a lower export base.

Firms also responded positively regarding access to finance from banks, despite negative perceptions, with 61% of those who applied for assistance saying that they were successful.

However only 30% of businesses are operating at full capacity with 64% below capacity and less than one quarter of firms reported that their sales had increased.

In recruitment, fewer say they will increase employee numbers and more say they will reduce numbers.

And 46% said that they were experiencing difficulties in finding suitable staff, particularly in recruiting for managerial and skilled operatives positions.

Forty-six per cent said competition with global rivals is the biggest concern, with 25% citing tax issues.

Chamber chief executive Ann McGregor said transport links are vital to an export-driven economy.

"We need to maintain and strengthen our links with Heathrow, we need a hub airport to access Brazil, Russia, India and China - countries where opportunities are," she said.

BDO head of tax Peter Burnside said the economy needs an incentive to grow. "Northern Ireland is on the periphery of Europe, if we want people to come here, they have to have some incentive to come here.

"The Assembly cannot let this prospect of lower corporation tax wither on the vine."