Executive needs to restore trust with the Business Community

Michael Stewart – President, Belfast Chamber

It has become all too apparent to businesses over the past few years that some within the world of politics do not view industry in the best of lights.

It’s more than just our current Prime Minister’s apparent reply of “f*** business” back in 2018 when asked about business worries over Brexit.  More substantially, his Government’s choice of an exit from the European Union which prioritised sovereignty over ease of doing business has added cost and complexity to trade which is detrimental to both companies and consumers.

Locally, we’ve, bizarrely, witnessed business organisations being blamed for the outworkings of Brexit and, perhaps less appreciated, is how, last January, the new Executive de-prioritised jobs and the economy, unlike its predecessors who had explicitly made it their number one priority.

That sense that the economy has slipped down the political pecking order has been compounded during the crisis created by COVID-19.  In my role as President of Belfast Chamber, I engage with businesses from all over our city.  At a time like this, when businesses are struggling and fearing for the future of the firms they’ve started and grown, they look towards the Executive for help and hope.  Increasingly, I am finding that business owners feel abandoned and ignored by what they see as an out of touch Executive.

Businesses that have been closed since Boxing Day have absolutely no idea when they will be able to open their doors again.  That gives shopkeepers, publicans, restaurateurs and others no ability to properly plan for reopening. And they are looking enviously at counterparts in Great Britain who have dates in early April when they can start trading again. On 12 April a person in England will be able go shopping, get their hair cut or have a drink in a beer garden. In Belfast, on the same date, we will only be able to use click and collect in ‘non-essential retail’, barbers and hairdressers will stay shut and we’ll still have no idea when we can have a drink or a meal inside or outside a pub.

The Executive’s abject failure to offer businesses here even indicative dates is not simply frustrating, it is extinguishing a sense of hope that was growing as we started to see infection rates drop and the vaccine roll out exceed all expectations.  So much so, that without the kind of certainty that businesses in England, Scotland and Wales are increasingly getting from their governments, many businesses will call it quits.  As they see debt mounting and they incur continued costs just to stay closed, with not even the hint of a timeframe for reopening or clarity on where the health data needs to be to allow them to reopen, can anyone blame them after enduring one of the toughest years ever to run a business?

As I listen to business owners, I get an abiding feeling from them that they think that Ministers aren’t listening, that they don’t understand how business operates and even that they don’t care what fate befalls their businesses or their employees. They don’t believe that the Executive is engaging with them and that decision after decision feels almost designed to make life more difficult for them.

No doubt, some within the Executive will seek to defend how they’ve supported business throughout this crisis. They will point to millions of pounds worth of grants and rates holidays for retailers and hospitality businesses.  Let’s set to one side the fact that the Executive has merely been responsible for the onward transmission of money that has flowed from London, it has often done so in ways that are complex, been slow to materialise, and left gaps that have totally excluded some businesses from accessing any support.  The rates holidays have undoubtedly been helpful, but we should not ignore the fact that the Executive stood little chance of collecting rates from businesses that have not been trading at all or properly for a year now. In effect, the rates holiday has been like the writing off of a debt that in lots of instances was unlikely to have been paid.  Indeed, had rates bills landed on the door mats of many businesses, there is a fair chance that would have been the thing that would have forced many to close forever and make staff redundant. At the risk of sounding ungrateful for the support that businesses in Belfast and right across our region have received, it is compensation that they are more than entitled to given that it was Executive decisions that forced them to close, depriving them of income, and accessing support shouldn’t have been as difficult as it has been for some.

The Executive has a job to do to restore trust with large sections of our business community. The Executive’s own Programme for Government consultation states repeatedly that it is only through collaboration across sectors that we can achieve the targets that are set. Belfast Chamber has been at pains throughout this crisis in saying that our response should not be characterised as health versus the economy. We have watched as the private sector helped the government fix its PPE supply problems, how retailers and agri-food factories have remained open to help keep shelved stocked and people fed and how, in a public-private partnership that will go down in history, a vaccine was developed and approved in record time.  As we start to edge towards recovery, it will be business that will create the jobs that generates the tax revenue that the Executive relies on to deliver public services. This is too small a place with too many challenges for elements of business to be made feel like it’s the enemy.

On 18 March 2020, as this crisis was commencing, the deputy First Minister said that “Covid-19 is not just a public health issue; it’s a societal and economic crisis without precedent in our time”.  Our path out of the challenges we face and towards recovery requires a proper partnership approach that should begin with treating businesses with some respect and fairness by giving them a proper, timetabled plan for reopening.