A £19.3million funding programme to support town and city centres recover from the impact of Covid-19 has helped thousands of businesses across councils, Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has said.
Launched in August 2020, initial funding for the Covid-19 Recovery Revitalisation Programme was for measures such as shop frontage and awnings/canopies; outdoor furniture; heaters and queueing systems. More recently the funding support longer term initiatives such as the creation of cycle paths and pedestrian walkways to encourage car-free shopping, small environmental improvements and the use of open space and vacant premises to provide safe facilities.
Total funding for the scheme was made up of £12million from the Department for Communities, £5million from the Department for Infrastructure and £2.3million from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs
Speaking after visiting business in Enniskillen who availed of the funding Minister Hargey said: “The Covid-19 Recovery Revitalisation Programme is an excellent example of collaborative working and was created to help and support our urban and rural businesses deal with the impacts of the Covid-19 Pandemic. In total the funding has supported over 3,000 businesses across the north which has helped them to reopen safely. The funding has also been used to encourage people back into our towns and city centres to spend time, to support our local businesses and ultimately to help keep our town and city centres alive and prosperous.
“It has delivered funding of £1.29million to Fermanagh & Omagh District Council to support a range of projects including grants to support businesses across the entire Council area as they prepared a pathway out of lockdown by assisting them to provide a safer shopping experience for all their customers. I was pleased to see at first hand today how some of this support has been received by businesses in Enniskillen.”
Cllr. Chris McCaffrey (Vice Chairperson) Fermanagh & Omagh District Council added: “Fermanagh and Omagh District Council is committed to working in partnership to improve the lives of all the people of the district and this approach has delivered tangible benefits making the district an attractive place to live, work and visit.
The Council has enjoyed an excellent working relationship with the Department for Communities over a number of years and it is a partnership we look forward to continuing to develop into the future for the benefit of our businesses and the wider community.
The £1.2million funding through the Covid-19 Business Recovery and Revitalisation Grant Aid Scheme has been used to support businesses to respond to the impacts of the Covid-19 health pandemic, to encourage people to support local to aid economic recovery and to deliver schemes which will promote and revitalise our town centres.
The Council will continue to work with the Department for Communities and other partners to provide assistance to local businesses and aid the recovery of the district into the future.”
Businesses Need To Seize Opportunities Created By Brexit
Ards businessman, Dr Adam Hunniford is urging Northern Ireland businesses to seize the opportunities created by the contentious Brexit NI Protocol.
Dr Hunniford, of PiP Chemicals said that whilst the issue remains politically divisive businesses can use the unique position of Northern Ireland to boost existing trade with the EU and develop new contracts.
“The Irish Sea Border means that for EU companies buying from Great Britain, they cease to be simple distributors who can rely on their suppliers meeting the regulatory requirements” he said.
“Rather, they become importers who must ensure these are all met – themselves – and shoulder the responsibility should there be failings.
“The same is not the case for EU buying from Northern Ireland, as Northern Ireland is in both the EU and GB regulatory systems. So a PiP Chemicals competitor in GB trying to sell to an EU company causes the EU company a set of issues they never had before that do not exist when buying from PiP.
“In real terms what that means is that if you get your supplies through GB the EU can ask about regulations, compliance and any relevant duties.”
Dr Hunniford said that this has created the circumstances that can be capitalised on.
“The opportunities lie in the EU market for Northern Ireland companies,” he explained.
“At the moment Northern Ireland is still operating in the EU system, comply with the rules and customers in Ireland remain a distributor and which means any compliance issues remain with the Northern Ireland company.”
He explained that already the Irish Health and Services Agency is clamping down on GB companies trading to the Republic of Ireland leading to many no longer supplying south of the border.
The Co Down businessman said that now was the time to promote Northern Ireland’s position.
“We should be shouting loud that we are still part of the EU, you can buy from us, there are no delays or regulatory hurdles,” he explained.
“It may be politically sensitive, but the reality is that we are now in direct competition with Britain.
“We are separate but we can offer something that GB cannot and so we should be saying ‘buy from Britain, have difficulties, buy from us, they will be fewer’.”
Dr Hunniford acknowledged that this will not be a popular strategy for many.
He said: “The broader government, of course, won’t like that companies like ours are attempting to take this strategy and it may not go down well with the public at all if Northern Ireland companies started stealing business from other regions of Britain, but that’s what has been created, whether we like it or not.”
He also explained the Brexit situation has been taking place within the context of the global pandemic, meaning most have been trying to cope with unprecedented pressures.
“Shipping containers are in the wrong place, and it will take some time to resolve this,” he said.
“Add into that is there are fewer haulage drivers across the UK. A lot of the lorry drivers were often Eastern European, and they have gone home, and that means there are fewer lorries coming and going.
“Hauliers will not be able to supply services at the same level, as the paperwork and lack of full containers going back and forth to GB is hitting their bottom line and that leads to increasing prices.”
However, whilst there are opportunities to be had, Dr Hunniford also warned there are inflationary pressures building.
“It is imperative that companies look to the current unique position of Northern Ireland to look to EU solutions, including transport and seeking new markets,” he said.
“PiP Chemicals have tried to mitigate the issues by having more stock and supplies, but that has extra storage costs. Had we not had to do that we may have been able to hire extra staff.
“Every company is facing cash flow problems, and that too will lead to price increases.”
PiP Chemicals, based in Newtownards, specialises in designing, formulating and manufacturing products for the automotive business and wider industrial uses. It sells directly to the automotive trade
Digitally Enabled Change, Data and Storytelling: the Way Forward for Tourism in Northern Ireland
Tourism NI’s head of digital explains plans for recovery
Digital development, increasing use of data and a vision of transformation for how the tourism industry gears up for the post-pandemic recovery are some of the priorities for Tourism NI as it prepares to revive Northern Ireland’s world-leading tourism status.
The recent Tourism Recovery Action Plan, launched by Tourism NI and DfE, has identified the need to support with adopting digital technologies to improve business processes and productivity, bolster online presence and revolutionise access to digital marketing platforms.
Tourism NI’s Chief Digital Officer Dave Vincent explained that the work the organisation had been doing prior to Covid-19, as well as since the outbreak of the pandemic, will enable the Tourism Recovery Plan to be effective.
However, Mr Vincent was clear that digital tools, data sets and transformational plans needed to be considered as part of all tourism business planning, large and small, over the next 18 months.
“We have been doing a lot of work to improve how we support the sector,” he said.
“But what we provide has to be seen as a business outcome as opposed to a digital outcome.
“In the coming months and years we want people to think of it as their digital strategy, not just about their digital transformation.”
This doesn’t diminish the need for creating and distributing good, compelling content on websites and social media. What Tourism NI is doing is supporting businesses through the development of the organisation’s web portal.
When the pandemic struck, a Covid-19 Business Support Hub was established on TourismNI.com to provide support to the tourism community. The ability to create the hub is part of the vision to provide more support through the site.
“Part of our development is through the use of a destination management platform. It has a host of features such as listings, offers and partnerships” explained Mr Vincent, adding: “It’s in 900 destinations around the world, and we are using it for the Discover NI site and we have provided access to all 11 council regions.
“Visit Causeway, Visit Mourne, Visit Derry, Visit Lisburn and Castlereagh are already live and more will come, meaning visitors can see the same quality and content. They will be able to look at what is in each area and book, plan and make their time here better.
“It will mean we have the first real, collaborative platform which is certainly the direction of travel we at Tourism NI want to take.”
One challenge facing everyone in the industry is the ability to gather quality data on visitors.
Tourism NI is working to further develop its own data hub and dashboard of information which will enable the sharing of data.
“We are developing a dashboard that will be on the Tourism NI site and we aim to have as much data as possible for the industry” Mr Vincent said.
“This includes questionnaires completed at airports, sensors recording activity at places like the Mournes and Derry Walls, and a range of other data that can be shared.
“We’ve got the sensors, they tell a story about where people are. We have also acquired credit card data, so we can tell what our key markets are spending, where in the destination they are spending and what they are spending on.
“I’ve got telecoms data, and we’re also collecting review data in real-time so I can look back on the visitor experience.”
The Chief Digital Officer explained with the aggregated datasets the service to individual businesses becomes such that they are able to look at content, see the direction they may want to go in and use it as a service platform.
“The aim is for businesses to register and get access to a range of tools. They will also get access to application forms, they can see the status of claims, grants, mentoring,” he said.
“It also means when the business has content we can share with a distribution platform, at the push of a button, have the content out on Visit GB, Trip Advisor, Booking.com, and many more. That will be even more powerful when people share their information.”
Part of what is enabling Tourism NI to action these plans is that they were in development for a period of time.
“When the lockdown happened we were ready as an organisation,” said Mr Vincent.
“Our Cloud-based services were ready to support the industry and we had the platforms ready.
“From a digital perspective, there is no difference to those we work with if we are in the office one day and working from home the next.”
He added that Tourism NI’s lead role on working groups demonstrated the value of the organisation.
“All of a sudden we had the industry talking to Tourism NI and representing the industry in surveys, getting us feedback and responding and showing the value we have,” the Chief Digital Officer said.
“Some in the industry might have thought we just sit in our offices and not understand what we do, but the journey through Covid-19 showed many what we can do with engagement and partnership.
“It showed it wasn’t just about grants, but we add value to the sector as a whole.
“Before there were aspects of what we do that were the only encounter businesses had, such as inspections and certifications.
“It has been quite transformational in terms of how we are perceived and understanding what we can do.”
Part of that has been the number of programmes Tourism NI has been able to deliver.
“From a business plan perspective there are many schemes we implemented last year,” he said.
“We were able to tackle website development turnaround, as part of my role in influencing the direction of grants.
“Quite a lot of companies received investment in a website audit, with content and videography, so we are capitalising on that for both sides.
“This means businesses can engage in digital storytelling and their videos, website, and social media work together to explain what they do. Marry that with the Destination Management Platform and the business can work better, and we at Tourism NI have more tools to attract visitors. Our work with Tourism Ireland, also, is about making the online space one which funnels people to choose a visit to the island of Ireland.””
Mr Vincent said he understood the difficulties many businesses are having, and whilst there are many resilient in the uncertainty, others are struggling, and need to tackle some of the basics of working in the sector.
However, he is keen to support those, as the next period can help change attitudes.
“What the lockdown has done is accelerate some of the thinking around the digital-first customer experience and journey” he explained, adding: “This all works towards creating a very attractive proposition for potential visitors”.
For more information on how Tourism NI can support businesses visit: tourismni.com/contact-us/covid-19-business-support-helpline