Posted on Thursday 8 November 2012 by Ulster Business

Stormont

Business leaders have welcomed a Stormont Executive initiative that will see £200m of funding directed towards boosting the economy and creating jobs.

The new measures, which include support for more than 4,600 people through skills training and employability, are in addition to the commitments made in the Executive's Programme for Government and Economic Strategy.

The announcement came only a day after it was confirmed that Ballymena-based construction company the Patton Group had become the latest local big name firm to fall victim to the recession and enter administration.

Despite signs of improvement in the wider UK economy in recent months, experts believe Northern Ireland's economy is flat at best, with concerns growing that unemployment is still rising. Close to 1,000 jobs are to go at manufacturer FG Wilson before the end of the year, while more than 300 jobs are at risk because of Patton Group's financial difficulties.

While the Executive's new initiative does not involve new funding, money is being re-directed within the various Stormont departments towards priority areas.

Among the measures announced were an extension to the small business rate relief scheme to provide around 3500 business ratepayers with a 20% discount.

And more than £40m will be made available to deliver a range of projects in the current financial year which will support the construction sector.

The headline initiatives in the package included:

- Waged employment opportunities for 1,700 young people for a minimum of six months in the private, public or voluntary sectors.

- Around 1,100 over-50s who have been out of work for more than 12 months will get 26 weeks' employment in the community and voluntary sector.

- Employer engagement with Apprenticeships NI means up to 900 additional young people will participate in the Youth Employment Scheme.

- An additional 500 undergraduate places will be made available in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths bringing the total increase in STEM places to 1,200 by 2015.

- A further 500 work experience placements/training opportunities for young people will be provided across the public sector as part of DEL's Steps to Work Programme.

- A new Invest NI 'Skills Growth' scheme will be introduced for small businesses (up to 50 employees) which would provide 50% grant towards training costs.

- A new 'Finance Voucher' scheme to help SMEs access the specialist support they need to grow their businesses.

- Car parking charges in towns and city centres will be frozen untill 2015.
An additional £15m will be made available for farmers in their Single Farm Payment in 2013

- More than £40m will be made available to support the construction sector in the current financial year.

- The maintenance budget for schools will be increased by £10m in 2013/14

- Nearly £60m of capital spending will be accelerated to allow projects to commence in 2013/14 rather than 2014/15. A further £10m will be available in both 2013/14 and 2014/15 through the housing co-ownership scheme.

- An extra £5.7m of funding will go to the Tourism Development Scheme which the Executive said could deliver total investment of over £27.5m, supporting over 450 jobs in the construction phase and creating or sustaining a further 50 tourism jobs once complete.

The Executive said there will also be further reforms to planning, including changes to the Permitted Development Rights regime which enables developers to undertake works without the need to apply for planning permission and revisions to the structure of planning fees to alleviate the financial burden on developers.

"I am pleased that we are able to announce this package which will provide a significant boost to the economy in Northern Ireland and provide employment, particularly for our young people and those who have been out of work for long periods," said First Minister Peter Robinson.

The deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, added: "The Executive is responding flexibly to the needs of those hit hardest by the recession and taking action to ensure those out of work have access to the right training, skills and education opportunities. These employment measures are particularly focused on the needs of young people to help them get into work.

"The Executive is already committed to delivering over £5bn of capital investment in the current budget period. To boost employment in the construction sector this package will deliver a range of new measures to improve our schools, roads and accelerate nearly £60m of capital projects."

Angela McGowan, chief economist at Northern Bank, said the Executive's economic stimulus package was "desperately needed" and should be welcomed.

"The economic climate in Northern Ireland has deteriorated significantly in recent months and although most of the announced funding is not 'new money' per se, it is rather money that is being put to better use. These initiatives will act as a stimulus now and indeed, many of the measures such as investment in apprenticeships, education and infrastructure will bring future returns too.

"The Executive's economic stimulus package amounts to roughly 0.7 per cent of local GDP and hits all the right notes in terms of supporting infrastructure, SMEs as well as local people -both young and middle-aged- who have found themselves excluded from the labour force in recent years. The package alone cannot bring about sustained recovery but it will certainly provide a dose of tonic for the ailing economy."

Institute of Directors NI chairman Mervyn McCall welcomed the package, saying: "The IoD is particularly interested to hear a Finance Voucher will help SMEs pay for support to grow their business, as a strong business culture will undoubtedly support further expansion and foreign investment.

"An additional 500 undergraduate places will also be made available in the much sought-after STEM subjects which will aid business expertise across the region.

"While this is not new money, any kind of financial package which assists the economy should be welcomed."

Ian Coulter, CBI Northern Ireland Chairman also gave a positive response.

"In particular, the injection of over £100m into the construction sector this year and next, will hopefully help local construction companies, and support employment.

"Addressing youth unemployment has been a key priority for CBI members and we welcome the announcement of additional apprenticeship opportunities and STEM graduate and PhD places. Northern Ireland does have a number of successful companies who have a demand for skills in this area."

Mr Coulter added: "CBI feels the Executive's commitment to proceed with further planning reforms is important, as we are still failing to meet performance targets here. Additional support for tourism development is welcomed, though we are surprised that the advertising budget has not been restored to enable the sector to promote itself more competitively with other UK regions, who have budgets that are much higher.

"Overall, the speed at which these initiatives were turned around following one meeting is encouraging. CBI would encourage these meetings becoming a regular occurrence, with monthly reviews tabled by the Executive."

 

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