Judith Cochrane MLA said: “There is barely a day that passes where the condition of our local economy is not lamented; the regional outlook for growth not re-assessed; or provincial access to finance and lending not critiqued. Therefore I feel it is important that the Assembly focuses on this issue and discusses how our Executive can use its influence for the better.
“I have no doubt most people know that local businesses are facing financial challenges and developmental hurdles in the current economic climate. We are aware of the diminishing availability of borrowing, particularly to small and medium-sized businesses, which fulfil so crucial a role within our local economy, accounting for 98% of the total number of businesses and employing 67% of the workforce.
“Geographically, culturally and politically we may be somewhat removed from the economic situations unfolding in both the US and Eurozone; however what we can and should be focusing our efforts on in light of these developments are the potential opportunities. Economic stability and business opportunity go hand in hand, and regardless of our size, our history or our politics, we as a society must actively be seeking to take advantage of this renewed economic horizon.
“In Northern Ireland, we have a range of established SMEs with boundless potential, yet this potential and enthusiasm is not always matched by financial backing. Yes, we have a small population, but this is not something that should confine our growth, nor our long-term objectives. Provided the European and US measures are effectively adhered to, any success in increasing employment and confidence, and restoring growth, will bring with it a subsequent increase in private demand and a rise in the demand for overseas exports.
“Perhaps the most significant fund in relation to this motion and the desire to deliver progress in our export market however is the Growth Loan Fund.
“The Growth Loan Fund, managed by WhiteRock Capital Partners, has been established to lend up to £50 million to Northern Ireland firms over the next five years, utilising funds from Invest NI and NILGOSC.
“Just last week we began to see the positive impact of this funding stream, with the first approved investment from the fund awarded to the Dunmurry ventilation systems manufacturer, Brookvent.
“The fund, which lends between £50,000 and £500,000, requires companies to be based in Northern Ireland, demonstrate growth potential and generally be in the manufacturing, engineering or tradable services sectors, benchmarks all clearly evidenced within Brookvent. The local firm, which employs 49 people, has only recently opened offices in Poland and Vilnius, Lithuania, to look after Baltic markets and it is anticipated that the Growth Loan investment of £425,000 will help them to accelerate their growth strategy in overseas markets and research and development.
“Further statistics for the fund reveal that since its creation, there have been 112 loan enquiries, with 6 additional deals due to complete in the next few weeks, ranging from £100k to £500k, totalling £2 million including the Brookvent award.
“Bank lending is certainly essential to small business sustainability, and news of the proposed new £1 billion business bank along with the Funding for Lending scheme are not without their merits. However, we cannot overlook the limits of our political clout however and while we can scrutinise and make recommendations for banking practices, our capacity to enforce our will upon banks is minimal.
“What perhaps is instead needed is a funding-focused intermediary organisation, a body that could operate as a separate independent and non-political co-ordination point which businesses in need can turn to. I don’t believe this is something that would need to be complex, but it would need to be well advertised.
“I would call upon the Executive to use its influence and faculty to explore suitable alternatives to ensure businesses are connected efficiently to funding sources and that their use is maximised.
Opportunities for Businesses to Access New Markets and Finance
‘That this Assembly notes the recent action taken by the European Central Bank and the US Federal Reserve to help stabilise the global economy, and the opportunities that this presents for Northern Ireland companies to expand and to increase exports; recognises the continuing problems of SME access to bank lending; further notes the availability of several significant sources of business finance; and calls on the Executive to use its influence to ensure that businesses are connected efficiently to these funding sources and that their use is maximised.’