The recent UK Budget provided small comfort to small businesses in excluding many from the proposed corporation tax increases.
In Northern Ireland that was indeed small comfort to many small businesses. They are doubly troubled. Burdened by the NI Protocol and supply issues that impact directly on competitiveness within the UK internal market, and battered by the indecision of the Northern Ireland Executive’s Covid Roadmap that is long on words, short on anything that much informs anyone.
“Can’t have people in complete darkness as to what comes next,” declared the Health Minister (Nolan Live, 3 March). The NI Exec seems not have found the light switch. The small incremental easements, for which the population is to be grateful no doubt, is hard to accept because there is little explanation as to why the information being used by the NI Health Department is so different from SAGE, and what Matt Hancock gets across his desk, to provide such an incoherent and unjustifiable extension of lockdown restrictions.
For small businesses lack of dates, targets or hope of opening anytime soon is an added blow at a time when the NI Protocol is proving to be a massive headache to sustaining business competitiveness within the UK and customer service locally – “Eight days for carrots to get to Belfast”.
Over on Think Scotland the impact of the NI Protocol is explained in more detail, but worth repeating a number of examples of how this is affecting three very different businesses:
ONE: A small haulier, employing just 15 people in the Belfast docks area is concerned that it lacks the resources to support customers, with large hauliers employing teams of people to do nothing other than input data into the systems.
TWO: A General Store in a small market town sources many items from GB. The store has successfully moved online. The business has two major challenges. Many of the sources of GB product have decided that the hassle of wading through the new rules is not worth the effort and have declined to provide goods to Northern Ireland. Those that have persisted with sending goods to Northern Ireland have increased cost to cover both time and effort spent in facilitating sales and delivery. For the store, there has been greater time spent trying to find alternative sources of goods – often at greater cost – but the range available to customers has declined and the cost increased. That is probably true of any local competitor to the store owner. The greatest impact, however, has been online, where reduced range and greater costs means the NI store has found itself to be uncompetitive with GB retailers online who do not have to bear the same challenges.
THREE: A local distributor for a sports goods business based on the South coast of England notes that his business is seasonal, low volume, though high value. After two months wading through the process to try to register as ‘goods not at risk’ (of entering the EU Single Market) he has discovered the requirement, monthly for ‘Supplementary Declarations’ . These seem incredibly complex for such a small and discrete business.
These are businesses that represent jobs, people, livelihoods that are invisible to policy makers and politicians. Hidden from the consumer because while we are in lockdown the supermarkets are all we see, the plight of small businesses including much of hospitality is barely mentioned at Stormont press events.
What happens when small businesses are expected to emerge from lockdown?
How many will simply give up?
How many will try to remain open, only to be overwhelmed by the challenges of the Protocol, accumulated lockdown debts, and a shrinking high street that means much reduced footfall?
That matters a lot in Northern Ireland; an SME dominated economy with 80% of NI private sector employment in SMEs (compared with under 60% for the UK). The small acorns that represent present economy and future growth are being smothered by inadequate political leadership on the NI Protocol and an incoherent disassembled response to Covid.
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