Northern Ireland suffers from the highest levels of personal debt and the lowest level of savings in the UK, according to the Financial Conduct Authority’s Financial Lives Survey1. It also has the lowest penetration of bank accounts, with around 8% of the population living unbanked. A lack of financial education, alongside the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has also served to further widen the gulf between rich and poor.
While a credit union movement is helping to insulate the poorer population from financial hardship, more funding and financial resilience education is required. Financial resilience is defined as “the ability to cope financially when faced with a sudden fall in income or unavoidable rise in expenditure” by the Office for National Statistics. A lack of robust financial infrastructure may also be exacerbating the problem. According to John French, CEO of the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, “There are quite a lot of initiatives on the UK level that don’t come to Northern Ireland. You also have the backdrop of paramilitaries and illegal money lending. It’s just a very complicated problem.”
Fuel poverty is a major challenge for the region. The issue is compounded by an ageing housing stock, which is poorly insulated. Around 42% of households across Northern Ireland are currently living in fuel poverty, according to official statistics2. Fuel poverty occurs when a family must spend more than 10% of their household income in order to stay warm in their home. According to the roundtable guests, this poses both a challenge and an opportunity for Northern Ireland. By replacing ageing housing stock with energy efficient buildings that tackle the issue of fuel poverty, Northern Ireland can also address another pressing issue: the climate crisis. Climate change was set to be the top priority for 2020, but much of the investment earmarked for sustainable initiatives has been diverted towards helping towns and cities recover from the pandemic.“We should be looking at our interventions and approaches and asking, ‘Are we producing a response here that is inclusive, that makes us more green, that drives the digitization agenda?’” Said Andrew McCracken, CEO of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland. “There is no reason why our intervention should be binary here. The key word for me is: synergy.”
Public, private and third sector organisations in Northern Ireland often operate in silos, which prevents the exchange of ideas and best practice. Collaborations at scale are hard to achieve under the traditional framework, which does not allow for easy communication between local government and central government, or even between local councils. This affects the provision of many vital services, such as mental health support, which requires a joined-up approach from multiple stakeholders. At the roundtable, several commentators warned that citizens are frequently experiencing different levels of support based on where they live in the region.
However, the dramatic move to widespread remote working has the potential to bring down those barriers to communication. It is easier to form partnerships than ever before, as conversations can take place almost instantly, and involve people from multiple locations and across diverse industries.
During lockdown earlier this year, grassroots organisations used this technological clout to their advantage, creating new initiatives to support the local community within days. Corporations and public sector organisations must take advantage of virtual tools to deal with future challenges.
“Scale is now on our side,” said Grainia Long, Commissioner for Resilience for Belfast City Council. “You can pull together problem solvers over a Zoom call very easily at very little notice. We need to use this crisis to think now about how we create genuine partnerships over the long term.”
To effect lasting change, bold action is required. The roundtable guests believe that cultural nuances in Northern Ireland discourage risk-taking, which slows the pace of change. “I think there’s something in the system here that tends to pull us to lead at the speed of the most risk-averse person,” said Andrew McCracken, CEO of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland. “There’s a sense of fear that stops people from making things happen.”
He called for more support for entrepreneurial leaders, and more of a safety net for those that try and fail. Some of the boldest strides in building an inclusive economy – such as improving access to employment amongst young people - have been made by social enterprises. Movement to Work helps employers to create opportunities for young people, through work placements, shadowing, and apprenticeships.
Access to rewarding careers for all
Now Group is a Belfast-based social enterprise supporting people with learning difficulties and autism into jobs with a future. The organisation partnered with Deloitte, the financial services giant, to create the One Million Futures initiative, which aims to improve the lives of 1m people across the UK. Since the launch of the project in 2016, One Million Futures has contributed more than £21m and 115,000 volunteer hours to UK charities, schools and social enterprises.
Battling digital poverty
Ulster University has distributed 1,000 laptops and 2,000 modems to help students out of digital poverty. Professor Paul Bartholomew, Vice-Chancellor at Ulster University said that access to technology is crucial for the future of the economy in Northern Ireland. “Including people within the economy gives them access to opportunity,” he said.
Connectivity for all
Northern Ireland boasts strong connectivity throughout the region. Openreach recently hit a milestone of 50% full fibre cover across NI – that’s around 420,000 households, which is significantly greater coverage than in England, Scotland or Wales.
Progressive funding across the third sector
The Community Foundation helps communities across Northern Ireland through grants and innovative programmes, such as Techies in Residence, which matches charities and social enterprises with big technology firms to help them scale.
Unlocking youth potential
Youth work charity YouthAction Northern Ireland runs programmes to help boost employability and skills, protect mental health, promote inclusivity and foster healthy communities.
IEP BOOST Social Innovator
The Hummingbird Project NI helps support the NHS through the provision of mental health support. Smart social enterprises like these, with a proven track record of creating a positive societal impact, could be better supported through funding, collaborations, or fast-track schemes to accelerate their ability to accept service users from other providers.
A common vision:
Tackle the barriers that prevent effective collaboration between government, business and civil society. To do this, give everyone a stake in partnerships that span these sectors, making sure that the voices of those not normally heard are at the centre of creating a vision that all parties can buy into. When delivered by multiple stakeholders, vital services such as mental health provision should be delivered in a manner that ensures that citizens do not experience different levels of support based on where they live in the region.”
Invest in financial education, encourage the creation of new financial infrastructure focused on including those on low- and low-middle incomes, and work together to ensure all citizens can access fair services and solutions to drive financial inclusion.
Create opportunities for young people to build exciting careers, and invest in a skills-based recovery so that innovation and entrepreneurial ideas can thrive.