Springing into a ‘polar vortex’

Small businesses are caught in a brutal spiralling of rising costs, with many on the brink of collapse. Despite the warming Spring air, firms are facing a form of polar vortex, with soaring fuel bills compounding the economic consequences of the pandemic. Such cost pressures will, at best, make the journey to recovery extremely bumpy.

Small businesses are caught in a brutal spiralling of rising costs, with many on the brink of collapse. Despite the warming Spring air, firms are facing a form of polar vortex, with soaring fuel bills compounding the economic consequences of the pandemic. Such cost pressures will, at best, make the journey to recovery extremely bumpy.

Just as the most vulnerable in society are prioritized for Covid boosters, SMEs should also receive a shot in the arm to help them survive; otherwise, the economic shockwaves will be felt across communities for decades. It is Stormont’s role to be in the small business corner, dishing out the economic injections; but it must first recognise just how far below its potential Northern Ireland has been punching.

Opportunities for long term growth have been stymied by Stormont’s instability over the past five years. The mandate started with a collapsed Executive, and it is ending in a similar state of collapse. That is a shocking indictment of our politics; but it’s also shocking that so much of the population seems to have become inured to it.

Roger Pollen, Head of FSB NI

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Chaotic government has damaged confidence, thus depressing growth. If such instability were in evidence in a business, it would not be tolerated – the shareholders would change the board and the management.

The Executive and the Assembly create the framework for our economy and society. Operating well, their actions underpin the health of our population; set the direction for the education of our young people; have responsibility for skills, and for our infrastructure - they set strategies for so many areas of life.

Alongside that, business gets on with what it does best, but it is intertwined with government.

The recent environment legislation exemplifies the symbiosis between the public and private sectors, as policy and its implementation present major challenges and opportunities, both of which business will embrace. But when one side of that partnership is failing to perform, both parts are diminished.

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Stormont needs to act says FSB head

Ahead of the election, business owners have been telling us what they need to see from the next Assembly. Sadly, many of their asks are the same ‘calls to action’ that FSB articulated at the previous election; policy proposals that have simply gone unanswered. While there are no short-term fixes to remedy poor growth and productivity, immediate actions need to be taken to ensure that firms move from economic ‘life support’ to actually realising their potential.

As an example, the recent NI Skills Barometer laid bare the chronic skills shortages at entry level and in specialisms, along with the continuing digital skills gap and the low numbers qualifying in STEM subjects.

Sadly, it’s a familiar story and one that chimes with FSB’s longstanding call for proper engagement with SMEs in the roll-out of a new Skills Strategy.

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Collaboration between education, employers and policy makers will be key to a strategically targeted longer-term skills plan. That approach should be central to the next Assembly delivering the better government that we all deserve, and about which we should all care.

It is a well-known fact that SMEs employ more people than all large businesses and the entire public sector, combined. Those small businesses are spread right across Northern Ireland, employing people and serving customers – voters – in every constituency.

Stormont needs to operate properly and deliver stable administration if they are to serve those people well. To do anything else would be to sell us short.

That’s why business cares and stands ready to play its part; but it can only do so if there is a functioning Executive and Assembly, focused on the massive tasks we face and willing to build a coalition of experience and expertise to help get decisions made, and made well.

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We face too many challenges on too many fronts to add avoidable instability at Stormont. The pandemic saw political opponents set aside their enmity to focus on COVID. The economic vortex that is now sweeping global forces right into our homes and businesses is a similarly great challenge to which our elected representatives must rise as soon as the election is past. Anything less would be unforgivable.

Roger Pollen is Head of FSB NI