Letter to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister

22nd March 2024

Subject: Action Required to Support Business                          

Dear First Minister and Deputy First Minister,

I am writing to you on behalf of Ballymena Chamber of Commerce and Industry and can I firstly take this opportunity to congratulate you both on your recent appointments.

Ballymena Chamber is one of the most proactive and growing Chambers in Northern Ireland, having grown our membership by over 50% in the past 5 years despite the challenging economic environment and the impact of the pandemic. Our members range from fledgling businesses (who have taken up our offer of a year’s free membership to support their development) to some of the biggest employers in Northern Ireland, including Wrightbus, Cranswick Country Foods, Moy Park and The Galgorm Collection.

We conducted a survey of members assessing their views on the economy and what issues are having an effect on their businesses, as a result we have already lobbied our local Mid and East Antrim Borough Council with respect to issues falling within their area of responsibility. However, a number of other issues have been highlighted which are within the remit of our newly formed Executive.

Whilst business in the Ballymena Area remains strong, with many of the country’s largest employers being based in the area, there are genuine fears that a number of issues will have a negative impact and stifle future growth. 

The issues raised include – 

  • Business Rates – we have raised the issue of non-domestic and domestic rate increases with the Chief Executive of our local Council and explained that the recent increases, the highest in Northern Ireland, are unsustainable and cannot be repeated at any time in the future. With the addition of the regional rate our businesses have seen a significant rise in their rates. However, the rise in domestic rates also has an impact as this will further reduce the spending power of prospective customers who will have to budget more carefully. We would ask that the Executive review how business rates are impacting on our local economy and a plan is put in place to ensure any future rises are kept to a minimum with local Council’s and the Executive putting measures in place to reduce and manage their costs.
  • Corporation Tax – The current 25% rate makes it hard to attract investment into Northern Ireland when the rate in the South of Ireland is considerably lower. Whilst over  time, the rate in the ROI may increase our level of Corporation Tax makes us less attractive to inward investment. There may be an argument for some form of banding for corporation tax – for example the first 100k of profit is taxed at 10%, 100-500k profit is taxed at 15% , 500k to £1m taxed at 20%. A tax regime such as this will not only help 
  • attract inward investment but also allow local businesses to reinvest to help with their growth ambitions.
  • Attracting Inward Investment – Northern Ireland now finds itself in a rather unique position with access to two large markets. This should prove to be a draw for overseas businesses and investors such as those based in the United States. What plans have the Executive put in place to ensure we make the most of these opportunities by promoting our local businesses and opportunities for overseas businesses to locate here, through agencies such as Invest NI?
  • Public Sector – It is essential that the Executive move as quickly as possible to release funds for much needed capital projects which will help to stimulate economic growth. Many of our local businesses have worked closely with the public sector in the past to deliver a range of projects, it is important that funds are released to allow these businesses to have some security. This will in turn encourage reinvestment and create further employment opportunities.

At the same time it is important that public sector pay disputes are settled quickly. Our businesses have had to increase wages considerably over the past two years, increasing their costs. Public sector employees are a large customer base who have seen their spending power diminished with stagnant wage growth met by rising prices. Pay settlements will allow this group of people to have more spending power and again help to stimulate the local economy.

  • Vehicle Test Certificates – One rather specific issue raised was the lack of MOT appointments. This has led to car dealers being unable to sell vehicles to their clients if the vehicle has no Vehicle Test Certificate and cannot be taxed.

A potential solution would be to give car dealerships a certain number of allocated spaces each month (dependant on their size). Legislation should then be amended to allow the vehicle to be taxed by its new owner on proof of an MOT booking. Obviously, the recent news on additional cracks in equipment has increased the concern for our local car dealers.

  • False Optimism – A further area of concern is the sense of ‘false optimism’ that local politicians appear to have – during and shortly after the pandemic much was made of the worry that COVID would see the collapse of many businesses. This did not happen, however that was very much the result of the unprecedented support coming from Central Government – that support is no longer available.

Businesses are now faced with increasing rates and rent; increased cost of raw materials; increased energy costs; wage inflation and reduced consumer demand – without urgent action this will lead to, at best businesses reducing costs by reducing staff or at worst being forced to close. Fears are genuine and we should not believe that ‘everything will work out ok’ the same way as it did following the pandemic.

In summary business requires certainty and the formation of the Executive is seen as a positive first step to regenerate our economy. However, it is vital that decisions supporting business are made swiftly. Businesses provide employment and surety for their staff, meaning that the Executive does not have to step in to support these individuals and their families. It must be a key priority for the Executive to both sustain and grow our local economy stimulating both inward and overseas investment.

Northern Ireland is in a unique position and business must be given the opportunity to make the most of the exciting possibilities on offer. We have some exceptional businesses, hard working staff and a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit – it is the Executive’s role now to both sustain and help develop our economy.

As a Chamber we would be delighted to meet with you or your Ministers to discuss the issues raised in more detail.

I look forward to your reply.

Yours Sincerely

Chief Executive

Contact Us

Ballymena Borough Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 4 Wellington Court, Ballymena, BT43 6EQ

Email: office@ballymenachamber.co.uk

Tel: 07801 738 359


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