Budget 2021: ‘I just feel we’re always struggling in the northwest’
Donegal ‘hospitality town’ business people on VAT, wage subsidy and debt warehousing
Fiona Roper, owner of the Old Stone restaurant, serves customers Aidan O’Donnell and Jack Britton: “I don’t see any positive news coming out of that budget for us at all.” Photograph: Joe Dunne
The inside of Fiona Roper’s cafe is newly decorated, and empty. She opened the Old Stone in Donegal town four days before Level-3 restrictions were introduced in the county; as the budget was announced on Tuesday her customers were huddled over their lunch at a few tables set up on the pavement outside.
“I never thought we’d be sitting out like this in Donegal,” remarks one. “It’s as if we’re on the boulevards of Paris.”
The outside seating area, and a takeaway option, has allowed Roper to remain open. “We’re just trying to keep our heads above water,” she explains. “You’re trying to survive on a few customers a day, because that’s all we can cater for outside.”
She is pinning her hopes on reopening fully in time to catch the pre-Christmas trade; otherwise, she is unsure if her new business will make it into the new year. “I don’t see any positive news coming out of that budget for us at all,” she says.
While the VAT reduction for the hospitality industry from 13.5 per cent to 9 per cent from November 1st will help “a little bit”, it will not have a big impact. “What would be a help would be a total break on VAT.
“There isn’t a safety net for anybody here. I just feel we’re struggling, always struggling in the northwest, that we’re forgotten about.”
On this Tuesday afternoon in October, the town centre is certainly quiet. Raymond Rooney, the owner of gentleman’s outfitters Peter’s Men’s Shop, explains that this is a “hospitality town” which did well with staycations over the summer. “Any reduction in the VAT rate for hospitality has to be a good thing,” he says, “especially for people from the North, they always give out about the price of food here”.
“Our northern visitors are very important, and we should be very conscious and careful of appealing to them.”
His greatest concern is uncertainty. “If it’s not Covid, it’s Brexit.” As to the Government’s approach to the pandemic, he feels it has “done a decent job”, with a budget which is “trying to stimulate the economy . . . the tone of the speeches is very positive, it’s about keeping hope.”
The extension to a form of the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (giving employers adversely impacted by Covid-19 a subsidy per employee), he says, is welcome. “Anything that keeps employees on the payroll rather than having to let them go, is super.”
At Donegal tweed company Magee 1866, chief executive Rosy Temple agrees that the extension of the scheme is “very reassuring”, describing it as a “virtual lifeline” for small and medium-sized enterprises like theirs.
She is also positive about the extension of debt warehousing provisions (allowing self-employed taxpayers to defer for a year without interest) and the credit guarantee scheme, though she adds that the Government must ensure these schemes are accessible to firms of all sizes.
Also encouraging, says Temple, is the “real emphasis from the Green Party in making changes on the vehicle [emissions] front and housing, and I look forward to seeing how that will work on the business front.”
In the main square, one local is less enthusiastic. “It already costs me €400 to tax that van there, and it’s going to go up,” he says. “That’s the Green Party for you. Mind you, I wouldn’t vote for any of those politicians.”
Back at the Old Stone, Jack Britton and Adrian O’Donnell are sitting down to lunch. “People really have no interest in the budget, they’re just so concerned about Covid-19,” Britton explains. “Sure look around Donegal town. Every other building is closed.
“The Government seems to be borrowing away to keep things going, and to try and return us to some sort of normality. Get us out of Covid, and then we’ll see.”