Small and medium businesses find it tougher to obtain a bank loan now than four years ago, government figures confirmed.The success rate in getting a bank loan fell from 92% in 2007 when the era of easy credit was at its peak to 65% last year. Building sector firms had the toughest battle according to the Northern Ireland survey of business access to finance.The likelihood of a successful application in that sector plummeted from 91% four years ago to 54% last year. The survey, which was part of EU-wide research, said it was even tougher for firms of up to nine employees, with the success rate halved from 89% to 45%.

But the decline was steeper in the Republic and for all small and medium firms the success rate dropped from 95% to 55%. Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said: “Access to finance on reasonable terms is essential to grow our way out of the current economic downturn.

“I would encourage the banking sector to work more closely with businesses to their mutual benefit, particularly in the high valued added export-led sector.”

Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, said the figures were “deeply disappointing”.

“We’ll be interested to see the response of banks to this survey.”