Budget Bill: Second Stage

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:30 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Daithí McKay Daithí McKay Sinn Féin 6:30 pm, 9th February 2016

I thank the Minister for his intervention, and he is right: it is about getting the balance right. The end product of the works being carried out will no doubt be very beneficial to those businesses, but there is a transition period. Also, changes in the market and in the economy in the past five years mean that it is sometimes hard to distinguish whether this is a result of the economic downturn or the work taking place. It is worth looking in greater detail at the effect of works being carried out in a town over a prolonged period. The Committee and individual parties have looked at the small business rate relief, and there is a view that it does not have that great an effect. However, we believe that it should stay in place until we find something more targeted. Perhaps this is one example of businesses struggling to make a profit being affected by an outside factor. The Department should look at it in greater detail.

Other issues were raised. I know one businessperson in Ballycastle — we passed this to the Department as part of the consultation response — who believed that he was doing the right thing by filling out the survey on turnover figures and matters relating to his business and returning it to Land and Property Services (LPS). However, the response rate to those surveys was only something like 50%. He felt that it was unfair that rates estimates, which increased by a few hundred per cent in his case, were based on the figures that he had provided, whereas the rates for businesses that did not provide figures were based on some other formula that was perhaps not as precise as the one used for his. Brian McClure took that point on board in our meeting in Ballymena. Perhaps it should be made mandatory. If the Department or LPS are to survey businesses for their figures, all businesses should return the survey or none, rather than having a situation that appears unfair to certain businesses.

Increasingly I believe that there is an appetite among the business community and the local economy for the Assembly and the Executive to take hold of further fiscal levers. Outlined in the Budget Bill are figures relating to the powers that we have on revenues and spend. Of course, across the water, they have had Smith, Calman and Silk; there have been so many reports about adding to the suite of fiscal levers that the Scottish and Welsh Administrations have. We have not had that here in Belfast. We need to look at that again for the new Assembly for the next five years. We have made significant progress on corporation tax and should look at income tax as another possible example. I have also been highlighting air passenger duty for a considerable period. I welcome the progress that the Executive have made on the air connectivity fund. I look forward to seeing how the ETI Minister progresses that in the weeks ahead. The more you learn about such matters, the more likely it is that politicians around the table will seek their devolution. The new Executive will finally have to come to grips with it in relation to further powers.

The JTI and Michelin sites in Ballymena must be an Executive priority. Invest NI is getting significant funds in the Budget. As I said yesterday, a strategy that goes beyond Belfast is needed for rural towns such as Ballymena. There is certainly a sense that more could be done. Do not get me wrong: Invest NI has secured significant investment. Even this week, we have seen significant job creation in Belfast and elsewhere, and that needs to continue. However, the new Executive and the new Department for the Economy — I certainly welcome the fact that the Executive have taken the decision to have an economy-based Department — need to get to grips with the focused problems in Ballymena. We have two excellent sites and an excellent manufacturing skills base. Manufacturing benefited many families in north Antrim; it benefited my family over 20 to 30 years. We all realise the value of manufacturing jobs, and we need to ensure that those jobs are recreated.

There are always global factors such as the slowdown in the Chinese economy and oil prices. Our skills base trumps some of the lower-wage economies that some companies feel are more attractive. We need to sell that skills base more effectively on the international stage. Some SMEs and indigenous companies have been taken over by larger international companies, and, in some cases, that is welcome. Invest NI has ensured that Wrightbus received significant support in recent years. We have secured big contracts from San Francisco through to the London buses. There are a lot of successes, but we can always do better. We can sell ourselves better. When we have that skills base, there is absolutely no reason why we should not go out there with confidence to sell the skills base in Ballymena and our manufacturing tradition in that part of County Antrim.