Employment at a record high, Northern Ireland’s tourism strategy on track and the Derry City deal gathers momentum

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Unemployment in Northern Ireland decreased by 3,000 to 28,000 between February and April, the drop of 0.4% to 3.1% was the joint best in the UK. The South West had the lowest rate in the UK at 2.7%; at 5.7% the North East had the highest. The UK unemployment rate stands at 3.8%.

The numbers employed grew by 2% to reach a new record high of 778,240. The private sector added more than 13,000 jobs over the year, an increase of 2.4% to 569,460 and in the public sector growth was 1% or to 208,480.

According to the latest figures from the ONS, Northern Ireland had the second lowest disposable household income in the UK between 2016 and 2017. The UK average is £19,514 per household with only England higher than this at £19,988; Scots had £18,099 of income whilst the Northern Irish narrowly beat the Welsh with £15,813 versus £15,754. Nottingham had the UK’s lowest gross disposable household income (wages or benefits) of £12,445 with London borough Kensington and Chelsea recording household income over £60,000 and a growth rate of 4.9% from the previous year. With inflation over the period at 2.6% the growth in Northern Ireland incomes of 1.0% suggests a decrease in disposable income in real terms.

The chair of the Industrial Strategy Council, Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane, has said Northern Ireland needs to invest more in higher education as the Province’s universities are full which means productivity growth is being impeded. Northern Ireland’s productivity is consistently c15% below the UK average with the lowest proportion of the UK population with qualifications equivalent to A-Level or above. The Industrial Strategy Council is an independent body tasked with monitoring the government’s progress on the commitments made in its modern Industrial Strategy. The Industrial Strategy allows different regions of the UK to focus on their strengths but the lack of a Stormont government puts Northern Ireland at a disadvantage.

Tourism in Northern Ireland is a bright spot and is on track to meet the £1bn target by 2020 set by the last Stormont government. Estimated spending in 2018 was £968m across 5m overnight trips with The Giant’s Causeway, Titanic Belfast and the Ulster Museum the three most popular visitor attractions in 2018. Also a total of 128 cruise ships docked at ports in 2018, more than double the number in 2013. Spending by external tourists was estimated to be up 28% compared to 2013 which brought in £669m to Northern Ireland. New air routes, the relative weakness of sterling and the Game of Thrones effect meant 16% of visitors were foreign (non-UK and the Republic of Ireland).

On jobs, Japanese firm Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has agreed to buy Bombardier’s CRJ aircraft programme for £432m. Bombardier put its Northern Ireland operations up for sale last month. The fuselages of the CRJ planes are made at Bombardier’s Belfast plant employing c300 people.

Software firm Dynamic Signal is to create 100 jobs in Belfast. The company makes technology that enhances intra firm communications. Invest NI has tied in £650,000 towards creating the jobs and since the US firm only has seven staff in Belfast this almost qualifies as inward investment.

Another good win is technology company Futrli, which is creating 80 jobs in Belfast. The company uses artificial intelligence technology to manage data for small businesses and accountancy firms. Invest NI has offered £440,000 plus the Department for the Economy will provide £406,000 for training with Futrli investing £5.5m. The Brighton-based company has offices in Auckland, Sydney and Melbourne.

Visitors to Scottish distilleries may be soaring, but a project to open the first whiskey distillery in Derry – The Quiet Man at Ebrington – for nearly 200 years will not go ahead. The project stalled last year and now looks over after the company seeking to revive it notified the council. Work on a museum marking the city’s maritime history has also stalled with the lack of a Stormont government cited as a reason why. The museum will cost more than £11m of which c£4.5m has been committed by the council with a further £6.5m from Tourism NI, the NI Executive Office, and the Department for Communities pledged.

The distillery and museum are examples of why the redevelopment of the former 26-acre site military base at Ebrington is proceeding slowly, with just five of the 21 buildings occupied. The base closed in 2003 and was gifted to Derry by the MOD. The Peace Bridge opened in 2011 allowing people to walk from the city centre to the Waterside but the urban regeneration company tasked with the redevelopment closed in 2016, with the loss of 18 jobs. Plans are still in place for a hotel, office spaces, a restaurant and a café.

It is likely that some of the £105m of government funding announced last month in The Derry and Strabane City Deal could find its way to Ebrington. The city will receive £50m to support innovation and grow the area’s digital sector with a further £55m allocated to an Inclusive Future Fund aimed at tackling deprivation and developing young people’s skills. Derry City and Strabane District Council anticipates the total investment will be £300m if it is complemented by the Northern Ireland government and the private sector. The City Deal plans include the establishment of a riverfront university medical education and innovation hub which would create 200 new research posts and increase Ulster University numbers in the city by 2,000. City of Derry Airport is outlined in the deal as are proposals that include improvements to the region’s digital connectivity, the creation of skills academies and the creation of a Centre for Industrial Digitisation, Robotics and Automation.

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