John Simpson: 10-year trade plan is ambitious but with surprising omissions
Northern Ireland's newest business alliance, Trade NI, brings together Hospitality Ulster, Manufacturing NI and Retail NI. The combined weight of the three organisations represents a majority of the businesses operating locally. It has started to play a role as a collective voice on the paths of economic development for the wider Northern Ireland economy.
Their Vision 2030 document makes an ambitious presentation which, potentially, could have wide-ranging consequences.
Ambitious goals come readily when based on the experience of existing businesses seeking to grow, develop new markets, and create a viable profitable future. Setting a pragmatic 10-year vision is a mechanism that tries to identify the current constraints and weaknesses and, as a consequence, prioritises remedial and developmental programmes.
A more testing aspect of such a 10-year vision would be to evaluate and prioritise policies and actions which would most effectively build a stronger economy.
Trade NI has identified a wide-ranging set of proposals - although with some surprising omissions - that pose a serious challenge to Government policy-makers and to other business organisations.
The agenda proposed by Trade NI merits serious debate. In parts it is imaginative and possibly contentious. In some respects, the proposals may be set aside as wishful thinking and difficult or unaffordable for a Stormont administration to deliver.
As a 10-year prosperity plan, critics will ask that the proposals should be assessed both for potential benefits and value for money, and re-enforced with a mechanism to identify priorities for implementation. Critically, the document now awaits that next stage in its refinement when affordability and operational sequencing are added.
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The macro-economic target set by Trade NI is support for an additional 65,000 jobs by 2030. The underpinning would be an annual growth rate for the local economy of nearer to 5% pa "instead of bumping along at less than 1%".
This target set by Trade NI represents a shift from a simple extra jobs figure. As has become more conspicuous, Northern Ireland's current economic weakness lies less in too few jobs and more in a search for better jobs. Unemployment is currently at an historically low level. Employment is at record levels but average earnings are lagging behind those in other regions.
A recurring theme in the Trade NI plan is the need for a programme for significant improvements in the generation of an improved skills base emerging from education and skills providers. This is not a new discovery. It has been a recurring conclusion for many years. The critical question is why, knowing that our educational achievements, particularly for less-favoured young people, are inadequate, this basic need is still not being tackled.
If Trade NI could persuade all other agencies to agree that skills and education, where the deficiencies are agreed, should be a first priority, that would be a notable first.
The prosperity plan by Trade NI merits careful and critical reading by everyone involved in influencing the local economy. The analytical framework emerging from priority themes of sustainability, competitiveness, global dimensions and the scope for revitalising (or regenerating) key places sets a challenging scene.
A missing dimension to the proposals from Trade NI is the absence of reference to what can be afforded. Does NI need a revised agenda for Invest NI to attract investment? International reforms, to improve effective taxation of multi-nationals, need to be accommodated in UK/NI arrangements. No reference is made to the former plan to reduce corporation tax in Northern Ireland. Has that expensive idea now faded? No reference is made to the pending crisis in funding for water services; some form of separate financing for NI Water is painfully overdue.
Trade NI has opened a long-awaited debate on how NI will develop in the next decade. This is a big challenge reshaping the framework of the last Programme for Government.
Company report: Lionrai Investments
Lionrai Investments No.1 is a London-based investment holding company which is the parent owner of Phoenix Natural Gas and Phoenix Energy Services. Both Phoenix companies trade in Northern Ireland.
The ownership structure includes Phoenix Distribution Holdings, registered in England. Lionrai is, in turn, jointly owned by the Utilities Trust of Australia and the Group Pension Fund of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
Turnover in Phoenix Natural Gas has recently increased year by year, reaching nearly £63m in 2018.
Operating profits in this holding company have grown significantly in 2018 to nearly 27% of turnover.
Understanding the pre-tax position calls for an understanding of the impact on the adjustment necessary to allow for the effect of allowances each year, reflecting the increased value of the assets of the group.
Assets were revalued by £14.1m in 2016, £38m in 2017 and £26m in 2018.
If the pre-tax losses, as published, are corrected for the gains arising from the revaluation, the pre-tax profits (before tax consequences) in the three years 2016-18 have been £17m, £15m and £16.05m respectively.
The group continues to implement a large capital investment plan, year by year.
The registered accounts reflect continuing increases in the balance sheet value of the assets although this increase is on a smaller scale that the commitment of capital funds.
There were dividend payments to the shareholders in Lionrai of £5m in each of the two more recent years.
Employment in the group has recently remained stable and increased fractionally to 166 people in 2018.