The State of Britain

NI’s property prices increase the fastest in the UK, the Belfast City Deal moves forward and civil servants continue to act as Ministers

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Unemployment in Northern Ireland was unchanged at 31,000 or 3.5% between November and January. At 2.9% and 5.2% the SW of England and Yorkshire & Humberside had the lowest and highest unemployment rate in the country respectively. The UK unemployment rate stands at 3.9%.

In March average earnings in the Northern Ireland increased to £545 per week. London had the highest average earnings of £846 whereas the North East had the lowest of £523. In the UK average earnings grew by 3.4% or by 1.5% after inflation.

Northern Ireland’s average property price increased by 1.3% to £136,669 at December 2018, giving an annual growth rate of 5.5% – the highest in the UK. In comparison UK prices dropped by 0.8% during March which cut the annual growth rate to 1.7%.

The NI secretary has approved the heads of terms of the Belfast City Deal; the first City deal in Northern Ireland. The UK Government will invest £350m in the Belfast region over the next 15 years if the funds are matched by the Northern Ireland Executive – assuming devolved government is restored. Co-investment of c£150m from Belfast Region City Deal partners and investment by the private sector could bring in over £1bn. The deal could initiate more than 20 projects, create up to 20,000 new jobs and increase productivity levels. Belfast City Council lobbied for the deal in partnership with six other councils: Antrim and Newtownabbey; Ards and North Down; Lisburn and Castlereagh; Mid and East Antrim; and Newry, Mourne and Down. Projects under consideration include a Global Innovation Institute, investment in digital connectivity, new tourist attractions including a new landmark venue in Belfast; development of facilities at Hillsborough and Carrickfergus castles; an extension of the Gobbins coastal path and the regeneration of Bangor seafront amongst others. On transport, an extension of Belfast’s Rapid Transit System will take in outlying districts. There are already more than 30 City Deals across Britain and work on a Derry-Londonderry Region City Deal is also underway.

Whilst City Deals will create employment, research from the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre suggests the National Living Wage could lead to 700 job losses. These job losses and other costs to businesses are estimated at £153m outweighing economic benefits of £80m through additional earnings and improved productivity. The National Living Wage was initially set at £7.20 rising to about £8.60 by 2020; this will lead to a pay increase for more than 128,000 employees with workers in the hospitality sector being the major beneficiaries followed by retailing and administration.

In its monthly survey of private sector activity, Ulster Bank suggests that Northern Ireland firms saw their export orders drop at the sharpest rate in more than five years with firms also reducing headcount for the second month running. The dominant services sector continued to expand; manufacturing was flat and construction and retail contracted. The wider economic slowdown in the Eurozone and beyond plus. Brexit-related worries are clearly a drag on growth. Brexit uncertainty was highlighted by Intertrade Ireland – the cross-border trade promotion body – that reported a late surge in applications for its Brexit planning vouchers.

On development projects, civil servants – in the absence of Stormont ministers – have approved plans for a £300m gas-fired power station in Belfast. The new power station will be based in the city’s Harbour Estate and will provide energy for about 500,000 homes and businesses. Significant planning decisions will continue to be made by officials for the foreseeable future.

A £12m investment in Londonderry by US global engineering firm Terex will create 100 jobs. The jobs will be a mix of production operatives, management roles and research & development positions. The project will manufacture equipment used in waste management, mobile conveying and recycling at a new 105,000 sq ft facility at Campsie. Invest NI has offered Terex c£1m of support for the project. Invest NI has also offered artisan food manufacturer Finnebrogue c£1.3m as an aid to capital investment and up to 125 new jobs; the firm will spend £17m on its nitrite-free bacon facility in Downpatrick.

Northern Ireland agri-food business Fane Valley has acquired the Irish firm Silver Hill Foods which produces premium ducks, largely for export markets in the UK, the EU and Asia. County Monaghan-based Silver Hill’s focus on non-UK markets helps Fane diversify its geographical customer base. Dublin based Davy Real Estate has bought iconic Harvey’s Point hotel in County Donegal for an undisclosed sum. The hotel, on the shores of Lough Eske, has been owned by hoteliers Deirdre McGlone and Marc Gysling since it opened in 1989.

WDR & RT Taggart – founded in 1902 – one of Northern Ireland’s oldest businesses has gone into administration. The engineering and consulting firm employed more than 30 staff at its offices in Belfast and Londonderry. Prior to the administration, part of the business – including the architectural, waste and energy services departments – was acquired by a former partner, 8 jobs will be safeguarded.