All too often in Northern Ireland it can feel like we take one step forward, only to take two steps back. That the FMB’s latest State of Trade Survey, which showed Northern Irish construction SMEs finishing 2016 strongly, was released around the same time as the announcement that the Northern Irish Executive was to be dissolved, is a case in point.
So, once again, we will be without an effective political leadership for the foreseeable future. Also, the continued absence of an Executive budget will undoubtedly hit firms reliant on public sector work, as spending decisions are deferred yet further. It could also dissuade firms from taking an interest in that pipeline of work in the future. Why place any reliance on a pipeline that offers little consistency or assurances, and is subject to sustained periods of indecision?
This indecision will inevitably create uncertainties over tax, skills development and training funding, all crucial aspects of a business’s future planning ability.
What makes it all the more frustrating is that the foundations for a positive relationship between the Executive and industry were being laid.
The Finance Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, had recognised the importance of raising capital spending in areas where Northern Irish provision is inadequate, such as housing or infrastructure. We had similar conversations with the Infrastructure Minister, Chris Hazzard. Both were developing positive, collaborative relationships with those industries relevant to their portfolios. Yet, we face the prospect of these roles changing hands once more and having to start all over again.
We have been – and will continue to be – frank with MLAs in saying we need better as an industry. Our members have worked hard and shown great resilience during some pretty fallow years, and are now being rewarded with an emerging recovery.
However, SME firms, which were hit particularly hard in the years following the financial crisis, have taken a long while to bounce back and the recovery they’re experiencing is still fragile. This is evidenced by the fact that our latest sector survey found that growth slowed considerably in the final three months of 2016.
Whatever the outcome of the next election, we need decisive action from the next Executive to boost Northern Ireland’s construction sector. Reform of the country’s sclerotic planning laws is essential, and the ongoing skills crisis needs tackling head on.
The looming prospect of Brexit may well start to bite as well. Strong, clear leadership from Stormont is essential and we hope that, come April, businesses and politicians alike are able to build on the hard won gains of the last few years.