The State of Britain

Northern Ireland’s unemployment at a record low, NI’s house prices increase the most in the UK and inducements attract sustainable inward investment

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Unemployment in NI decreased by 4,000 to 26,000 between December and February; a significant fall of 0.5% to 3.0% – the biggest drop in the UK. The SW of England had the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 2.6% and the NE of England had the highest at 5.6%. The national unemployment rate stands at 3.9% and UK average earnings grew by 3.5% or by 1.6% after inflation. NI’s rate is a new record low and the UK rate is now lower than at any time since the end of 1975. The EU rate is 6.5% and the rate in the Republic of Ireland is 5.3%.

It is hoped NI’s record low unemployment rate will be maintained after the national living wage increase – to £8.21 an hour for workers over the age of 25 – has fed through to the 75,000 NI workers who will receive £690 more in their annual pay packets. The national minimum wage is also rising – to £7.70 an hour for 21 to 24 year olds and £6.15 an hour for 18 to 20 year olds.

NI’s average property prices increased by 1.3% to £136,669 during the month which meant prices improved by 5.5% over the year – the biggest uplift in the UK. In comparison, UK prices dropped by 0.8% to £226,234 during April which cut the annual growth rate to 0.6%.

Despite the positive economic data, there are some clouds on the horizon. Research from Ulster Bank suggests Northern Ireland’s private sector saw its first monthly fall in output in almost three years in March. Due to Brexit stockpiling, manufacturing was the only sector to see output growth with data suggesting export orders and employment levels have dropped at their fastest rate in almost six years.

The gloom was evidenced by poultry firm, Moy Park, which is to temporarily halt some production at its factory in Ballymena, County Antrim. It will stop slaughtering birds at the factory until January next year and its north Antrim hatchery will also be out of operation until November this year. Processing and packing operations will continue at the Ballymena plant. The firm is owned by US-based Pilgrim’s Pride and is one of NI’s largest private sector employers; c1,700 people work at the Ballymena plant and c3,500 at other NI operations. Unite are concerned this could lead to 400 job losses, but Moy Park maintains that redundancies can be avoided through redeployment elsewhere.

At Bombardier, Unite says that up to 35 of the 490 job losses announced last November will be compulsory redundancies. A consultative ballot on strike action has been agreed by Unite and GMB union representatives. Bombardier employs c4,000 people in plane-making activities at a number of sites in and around Belfast.

More positively, Seagate, is investing £47m in a R&D project at its Londonderry factory, creating 25 highly skilled jobs. The project will focus on nanophotonics – the generation and manipulation of tiny points of light and is supported with a grant of c£10m from Invest NI. Supporters of governments that pursue robust regional policies will point to the benefits of attracting key inward investment – via financial inducements – that bring long term benefits to the more economically challenged parts of the UK. Seagate was an inward investment project in 1994, investing £50m and creating 500 new jobs. The firm now employs 1,400 people and is estimated to have invested in excess of £1bn at a cost to the public purse of £175m.

Indian-owned Firstsource Solutions, has announced a £1m investment into its Belfast city centre hub. The new 600-seat call centre will house 150 existing staff and has the capacity for 450 new jobs, expanding on the firm’s existing 1800 headcount. Firstsource is one of the UK’s top 10 contact centre providers and works across the Banking, Financial Services & Insurance, Telecommunications & Media, Utilities and Healthcare sectors with clients like Sky UK & ROI, Now TV, GiffGaff, Royal Bank of Scotland and Ulster Bank. The firm cited the recently announced £350m Belfast City Deal as one of the reasons why it chose to invest in the city.

More votes of confidence in Belfast came this month. First, Citigroup, has bought its premises from Titanic Quarter. The financial services firm has rented the Gateway building since 2009 and although the price has not been disclosed the building had been on the market for £34m. The US firm is one of Belfast’s major employers with about 2,600 staff in the city. Second, developer JMK Group is proposing a 280-room hotel at a site on Hamilton Dock, next to the Titanic Belfast visitor attraction. Third, the parent company of the Belfast Telegraph is being sold to Mediahuis, a Belgian media group, for £126m. Mediahuis’s continental titles include De Standaard in Belgium and De Telegraaf in the Netherlands. Also in the city, all of the businesses forced to close because of the Primark fire will reopen by mid June. The fire, in August 2018, destroyed Bank Buildings, which housed Primark and meant that 14 businesses near the Bank Buildings were not able to trade.

Finally in Antrim, plans for a new £30m distillery in Bushmills have been approved by Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council. The new facility will include a malt intake, mill, lauter tun, washbacks, still house, tank farm and evaporator and will eventually have an annual malt distilling capacity of 7m litres of alcohol; up to 20 jobs are likely to be created. In 2014, the whiskey brand was bought by Mexican-headquartered firm Jose Cuervo. Bushmills Distillery claims to be the oldest licensed distillery in the world.