The State of Britain

Concerns over an iconic Northern Ireland firm and more growth deals announced

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Unemployment in Northern Ireland increased by 1,000 to 28,000 between March and May, the uplift of 0.1% took the rate to 3.1%. At 2.6% the South West of England had the lowest rate and at 5.6% the North East had the highest rate in the country. The UK unemployment rate stands at 3.8%.

Northern Irish average property prices decreased by 1.0% to £134,811 during the first quarter which reduced the annual growth rate to 3.5%. In comparison, UK prices increased by 0.1% to £229,431 during May which reduced the annual growth rate to 1.2%.

On interventions, the new prime minister has announced six new growth deals, three in Scotland, two in Northern Ireland and one in Wales. The UK government said the allocation of the £300m pot would depend on the strength of the proposals put forward.

Growth deals (also known as city deals in urban areas) are national, devolved and local government funding packages aimed at boosting regional economies often by encouraging private investment on specific projects. Belfast City Deal, which proposes to invest £350m into Belfast and six surrounding council areas, has already been agreed. These new funds will cover mid south west Northern Ireland and Causeway Coast & Glen. They will also be used to complete a deal for Londonderry and the North West.

Devolved funding needs to be more transparent according to a report from the powerful Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons (‘PAC’). Last year spending per head in Northern Ireland was highest at £11,190 per head, followed by Scotland at £10,881 per head and Wales at £10,307 per head with England was lowest at £9,080 per head. The Treasury allocates a block grant to each region and then uses the Barnett formula to flex the funding when there are changes to UK government spending that affect devolved services, aiming to give each country the same pounds-per-person change. On top of this the government can allocate additional funding outside Barnett for example on City Deals. The PAC claims that few taxpayers understand how the system works. The Committee also said the uncertainty caused by postponing the Spending Review was impacting on how the government will replace existing EU funding.

The iconic Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast – where the Titanic was built – is at imminent risk of closure according to unions who have called for it to be nationalised. A government spokesperson said the firm’s difficulties were a commercial issue and that it had no plans to intervene. The company’s Norwegian parent company, Dolphin Drilling, which has owned the yard since 1989, is having serious financial problems which led to it putting Harland and Wolff up for sale late last year. There were exclusive negotiations with a potential buyer but they appear to have ended in the last two weeks. The yard employs about 130 people, specialising in energy and marine engineering projects.

Also, in Ballymena, bus manufacturer Wrightbus has confirmed it is seeking an investor as it faces cashflow problems. The company has hired accountants Deloitte to find potential investors. The firm had two rounds of redundancies last year with 95 jobs going in February and June, it continues to employ about 1,400 staff in Northern Ireland. Demand for new buses in the UK market has dropped off following years of growth driven by new emissions targets.

Better news in East Belfast after Air France said it would buy 60 Airbus A220s, the wings of which are made in Northern Ireland. The airline has also taken an option which could see its order rise to 120. About 1,000 staff work at the A220 wing factory. The A220 was formerly the Bombardier C Series until Airbus bought a majority share in the project in 2017. Airbus said there is now an order book for 551 A220s.

Also on jobs, Lisburn-based firm, Creative Composites Ltd, is creating 132 jobs as part of an £11m expansion. The new jobs include production, engineering and managerial positions and are supported with £1.5m from Invest NI. The firm manufactures products for the car, rail and medical sectors. An expansion by Ballymoney-based construction firm Dowds Group is also being supported with an Invest NI employment grant of £442,000 which is tied to 68 new jobs. However, in Armagh, Linwoods is closing its Armagh bakery with the loss of 70 jobs.