Economy minister Diane Dodds last week put forward a substantial package of funding to help in regenerating our beleaguered economy post-pandemic. Food NI will continue to support the minister, and the wider Executive, in its efforts to turn the economy around over the months and years ahead. We believe that our creative and versatile food and drink, which has ‘fed the nation’ during the pandemic, should have an even greater role to play in the regeneration.
While I appreciate the need to continue to keep downward pressure on this dreadful and lethal coronavirus to save lives and protect the NHS I have to say that I remain deeply concerned about the future of the hospitality sector, in particular, and the wider economy. The sector can play a vital role especially in the rejuvenation of our city and town centres which have seen a disturbing decline in major retailers and the loss of thousands of jobs.
Many thousands of workers are either redundant or on furlough due to the pandemic. And it’s still far from clear if existing funding support for the furlough scheme and other initiatives including lower rates and VAT will be sustained beyond March. Industry and wider community need hope that there will be a sustainable future beyond the pandemic. It’s essential, we believe, that the furlough scheme and other support for business be retained. Indeed, we’d wish to see funding and other support, especially the lower VAT rate, extended to the end of this year and beyond. The Executive should also consider investing in the sector by providing a separate fund to help the sector recover.
It’s also essential too that the chaos surrounding the so-called Irish Sea border is resolved…and quickly. We really do need to see the promise of “unfettered trade” between Great Britain and Northern Ireland honoured by the Government and EU. Both appear to be digging their respective heels in at present.
The new £1million capital grant scheme to help existing micro food and drink manufacturing businesses to upscale production to secure new markets for their products is a very important step in the right direction. The aim of the scheme is “to enable eligible businesses that are processing primary agricultural or horticultural produce to commence supplying to the retail or distribution industry; or to increase the quantity of products they are selling to the retail or distribution industry; or to move into sales outside of Northern Ireland. In other words, improving commercial links between Northern Ireland food processors and the local farmers and growers who produce the raw materials. Grants of between £5,000 and £50,000 will be available.
We are urging our producer members to explore how the scheme might benefit them to develop their business before it opens on 8th March. Food NI is keen to support the scheme. We will do whatever we can to assist our members in particular to get involved and grasp the benefits. The budget for the current scheme is limited to £1 million, which doesn’t go terribly far, but it is definitely a positive step by DAERA and hopefully it is a scheme which can be expanded in the future.
The food industry at micro and other levels is growing and many of our firms are now active in key markets such as Great Britain and the Republic as well as further afield. We’ve seen several of our member companies winning good business in these markets in recent weeks. They include: Mash Direct in Comber which has gained a listing for eight lines by Marks and Spencer in Ireland; Finnebrogue in Downpatrick has won significant business from Asda for its plant-based foods; and Burren Balsamics in Richhill has achieved repeat business with Harrods in London and extended the range of vinegars now on sale in the iconic London luxury department store.
Irwin’s in Portadown, our biggest independent bakery, has extended its business with Lidl; Golden Popcorn in Antrim has won new business with Aldi for a new snack product; and Tom and Ollie in Belfast is also doing good business with this retailer in the Republic. I congratulate all these companies on their impressive achievements.
Other member distilleries such as Old Bushmills, Echlinville, Boatyard and Symphonia have recently won major international awards. These and other successes further demonstrate that food and drink is a vibrant industry able to make an even greater contribution to the local economy. Additional support would enable it to play a key role in driving faster economic recovery.