Centre for Cities report

Brian Walker has highlighted the relevance of the think tank, Centre for Cities’, report — Cities Outlook 2009. I expect much of the Belfast chatter to focus on the finding that our city has been put on “red alert”, in light of the deepening recession.

However, having quickly read the report, there are other findings about Belfast that I find at least as interesting.

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First, the report argues that this recession will particularly hit hard those cities that rely much upon hotels/restaurants, finance/insurance, and construction. Their table (above) shows that there are many other cities that are in a more precarious situation.

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Centre for Cities also compiled indices for economic peformance and social deprivation (amongst others). What should concern policy makers in Northern Ireland is that while Belfast and the province as a whole have a middling ranking for economic performance, we remain stubbornly poor in regards to social deprivation: 59/64th.

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Indeed, Belfast was the worst in regards to percentage of population with no qualifications, at 24%.

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While it was no surprise to learn that wages in greater Belfast are lower than the Great Britain average, it is interesting to see the scale of employment rate within the same area, from a high 82.1% in Carrickfergus to a low 65.5% in Belfast City.

The report had a separate analysis of Belfast’s performance:

Belfast – tackling worklessness through the recession?

Belfast has seen rapid change in the past decade, with unemployment falling to around 4% in 2007 from over 9% a decade earlier as the city has matched political progress with greater economic dynamism. The traditional industries around which the city grew, like shipbuilding and textiles, have all but disappeared. Belfast –- the economic driver for Northern Ireland -– is now largely a service-based economy. A recent surprise growth sector has been hotels and tourism, and the city has started looking to grow a financial services sector.

Over the years, Belfast has benefited from a strong public sector presence –- accounting for around 40% of jobs. But the economic transformation is far from complete -– the working age employment rate in Belfast City is only 65.5%, with more than one fifth of those registered as unemployed out of work for more than a year 29. Belfast’s economic progress means that the city enters the recession from a stronger position than previous downturns. And despite fiscal constraints on future public spending, there is still backing for key regeneration projects. In November 2008 the Northern Ireland Government confirmed backing for the Titanic Quarter in East Belfast -– expected to create up to 600 jobs in construction and 200 in tourism when finished.

The city will inevitably be affected by contractions in both the UK and Irish economies. Based on a scenario of a 2% drop in GDP, Oxford Economics forecasts a fall in employment in the city of 5,000  over 2008-09 –- or 2.4% of total employment. Most importantly, this increase in jobless will come on top of existing concentrated pockets of high levels of worklessness -– a legacy from decades of industrial decline. Given the extent of worklessness in Belfast, responding to rising unemployment during the recession must not take attention away from this longer-term constraint on the city’s success.

Part of Centre for Cities’ proposals include greater devolution:

For cities to lead Britain’s return to growth, they need greater control over employment, training, housing, and transport policies. With so many decisions being taken in Whitehall and Westminster, cities have found it hard to respond quickly and decisively to fast-changing local economic circumstances. The Centre will be following these developments closely over the coming months … During 2009, at the height of recession, the Centre for Cities will continue to make the case for greater devolution.

This was written with English cities in mind, but begs the question for us and our local Executive Ministers, Assembly Members, and District Councillors. How effective is such devolution if there is (a) insufficient financial resources or instruments and/or (b) insufficient political will?

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