The business community has reacted with varying degrees of concern and satisfaction as Finance Minister Arlene Foster revealed deatils of the the nine department budget plan agreed by the Executive.
In her last major act before assuming control of her party and the role of First Minister, Mrs Foster admitted the budget plan for 2016/17 had been laid out in “very challenging circumstances”, but insisted the Executive had delivered on the Fresh Start agreement.
The document protects health and social care as well as providing an additional £40 million for education and £5m for skills, but that was not enought to settle the concerns of the Northern Irland Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NI Chamber) who accused the Minister of failing to hear its message on the economy.
“NI Chamber welcomes the NI Executive’s Budget,” said Chamber president Stephen McCully.
“We have, however, spent a number of months emphasising the importance of investment in skills and our message has not been heard.
“It is also disappointing that the Department of the Economy is receiving a cut in the NI Executive’s 2016/17 budget and doesn’t seem to complement the need to prepare for a lower rate of Corporation Tax in 2018.”
Given that the change in the corporation tax regime is expected to create demand for more skilled staff to fill higher paid jobs, he said it was “vitally important” that budget was allocated to the Department of the Economy to support the development of STEM programmes and retaining the Assured Skills programme to bridge the skills gaps in priority sectors such as IT, advanced engineering and financial services.
“NI Chamber therefore urges the Northern Ireland Executive to begin 2016 by reconsidering the draft budget allocations for the Department of the Economy and in particular the allocations to higher and further education and skills development initiatives which lead to the development of a higher value economy; support export development and reduce youth unemployment,” he McCully added.
Stating that the business community would welcome the agreement reaching in delivering a budget, CBI Northern Ireland director, Nigel Smyth, said it recognised the challenging funding environment facign the Executive.
“Our initial reaction is that the new Department of the Economy has not been protected, and it remains unclear what impact this will have on investment in skills next year,” he said.
“There are strong arguments for increasing investment in our colleges and universities as we prepare for the opportunities of a lower corporation tax rate in 2018.”
At the same time he said there appeared to be more positive news on the capital investment side with “total expenditure of over £1.15 billion planned for 2016/17 and welcome commitments beyond this for investment in the strategic roads network (A5 and the A6) as well in the Belfast Rapid Transport and Belfast Transport Hub projects”.
“We also welcome the commitments to press ahead with transforming our public services, though disappointed that the Executive has not considered the need for any additional revenue raising measures.”
Glyn Roberts, CEO of retail group NIIRTA also welcomed agreement on the budget and said one key feature would be appreciated across the sector.
“Minister Foster has made the right call in again freezing the Regional Rate given the cost of business pressures many of our members are under”