The paralysing effects of Brexit and the lack of an NI Assembly have left hospitality frustrated and fumbling for some sense of what the future might hold, says Colin Neill.
It’s been customary for many years for Colin Neill to update Yearbook readers around annual progress on those issues of most concern to operators in the hospitality and tourism sectors.
This year, however, in the continued absence of a functioning NI Assembly and in the face of Brexit’s paralysing influence, there was little in the way of developments for the Hospitality Ulster chief to report.
Oddly enough, the sector is currently enjoying conditions that just a few years ago might have been considered Utopian – soaring visitor numbers are driving strong growth in tourism and the hotel sector is experiencing unprecedented growth.
All of this, however, is viewed through the prism of the national obsession with Brexit and amidst the stagnant morass of NI politics, there is little room for optimism in business circles.
It’s a dispiriting situation and one that was nowhere on the horizon as recently as 2016 when, during his annual catch-up, Colin reported that things were ‘on the up’, albeit a patchy, Belfast-centric renaissance.
Today, Colin says that frustration among his members is inevitably turning to apathy:
‘People have just come to the conclusion that it’s all a waste of time. There is no government and that’s it, people are losing interest,” he reports.
Colin and his team have spent much of the last 12 months at Westminster. They’ve been building relationships and continuing to make the case for changes around tourism VAT, air passenger duty and business rates – all areas where slow progress was being made before the collapse of local government.
‘2018 was frustrating for the trade and disappointing for us because of all the work and effort that had been put in on so many fronts,’ says Colin.
Relationships with local parties have also been maintained so that pressing issues can be kept at the top of the agenda. However, Colin warns that if the Assembly is restored then it cannot simply continue on where it left off:
‘Government needs to work differently,’ he says. ‘It needs to be more progressive, we need to see modern licensing laws for business because tourism is now our only growth market and to continue to grow, it needs to be equipped to cater for the different products and offerings that there are. And we cannot continue to tax our premises to death. Our business rates are killing us.’
Colin pointed out that in England, business premises with an NAV of £51,000 were getting rates relief of 30 per cent, while premises with an NAV of £12,000 or less paid no business rates at all:
‘In NI, we get a miserly 20 per cent if we have premises with an NAV of £18,000 or more but if it comes to it, this is something that NI actually needs more because we have less disposable income here than they do in GB.’
Going forward, Colin says that 2019 must be the year in which government returns to Northern Ireland. It must be an administration that acknowledges the value of hospitality, he says, and its vital role in developing tourism as a key economic driver.
‘I hope that we’re able to get a government back, one that delivers on the key issues that that we can create an environment in which we can sustain and grow our businesses,’ he adds. ‘I travel in hope. We have to remain optimistic that the Assembly will come back and we have to be prepared to move forward the second that it does.”