Northern eyes stay focused on recovery

Tue, Dec 4, 2012, 00:00

BELFAST BRIEFING:It is a tough job being a president these days. People want strong leadership in uncertain times. They want someone to point them in the right direction and tell them everything will play out fine, particularly when it comes to the economy.

Presidents cannot be pessimistic. So it is just as well that it is a trait Mark Nodder does not suffer from.

Nodder declares he is an optimist, which is no bad thing when you are the president of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce. You need to be an optimist if only to keep swimming against the steady stream of gloomy economic data swirling around the North.

Nodder believes it is easy to be pessimistic, much too easy, particularly about the economic outlook. Instead, he believes firmly that confidence breeds confidence. It is a motto that has obviously paid off for him as the managing director of one of the North’s top exporters, the Wright Group.

The Ballymena-based bus builder is working on a “breakthrough” order for 50 new double-decker bus kits that will be shipped to China for assembly. Once assembled they will be delivered as fully built buses to the Hong Kong-based Kowloon Motor Bus Company and join the 450 buses in service in the region.

Export opportunities

According to Nodder, the Ballymena group’s latest order shows there is business to be won abroad. In his opinion companies must be prepared to commit time to investigate opportunities and relationships which will drive business.

But he is concerned that after “four years of downturn, flat-lining and uncertainty” there is a definite lack of confidence in the air in the North. He says it is time to correct that and there is no better place to start than for the private sector to work with the public sector to help each other rebuild confidence.

One man Nodder believes has the power to give a massive boost of confidence is the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne. Tomorrow, Osborne delivers his autumn statement – in effect his half-term report on how the UK economy is performing.

It is not likely to feature many top marks. Osborne’s mini-budget will likely reflect that dealing with the UK’s debts is taking much longer than predicted.

It may also seek to address concerns that economic recovery is much weaker than had been hoped and that the economy could be heading towards a triple-dip recession.

Nodder is hoping that Osborne will tomorrow “pull out all the stops” to make it easier for businesses to break into new markets, invest and create jobs. “The chancellor’s autumn statement must include tough decisions to prioritise growth without adverse effects on the government’s deficit-reduction programme. We believe that resources need to be reprioritised to support business growth, international commerce and the building of houses and infrastructure.”

Nodder is confident businesses can lead an economic recovery but only with some targeted support and a confidence boost from government.

The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce is far from the only business voice urging the chancellor to take “unpopular decisions” to get the economy back on track.

There is no end to the number of potentially unpopular decisions from which Osborne has to choose – whether it is rejigging the UK’s welfare spending budgets or increasing taxes on high earners and reducing pension relief. But, overall, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) says the chancellor must be motivated by a desire to “drive growth” and deliver on finance for businesses.

He should also, the CBI urges, commit capital spending resources to big infrastructure projects and “short-term, high-impact measures to support growth”.

Mervyn McCall, chairman of the Institute of Directors’ Northern Ireland division, said business leaders would be looking for “initiatives that assist the growth of the wider economy that in turn will have a spin-off for local firms supplying the Great Britain market”. It’s a tall order.

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