Belfast has been named fourth largest improved UK city, according to PwC’s Good Growth for Cities Index.
The report states that the creation of jobs and environmental improvements are the strongest areas of improvement in Belfast and Londonderry over the last 12 months.
It named Belfast as the fourth best improved of all UK cities since the financial downturn although it also suggests that the city faces “significant growth challenges”.
Below average increases in skills, the formation of new businesses and income means Belfast’s overall performance is on a slower trajectory compared to other UK cities.
It has once again dropped down the national league table and is now ranked 34th out of 42 cities; in 2016, it was 26th.
Meanwhile, Londonderry has seen the biggest improvement of all 11 devolved cities over the last 12 months.
Despite being 11th out of the list of 11 devolved cities, it has seen the biggest improvement of all.
The index checks the performance of 42 of the UK’s largest cities based on the public’s views of what constitutes economic success and well-being.
Indicators include employment, health, income and skills - the most important factors as judged by the public - while housing affordability, commuting times, environmental factors and income inequality are also included, as is the number of new business start-ups.
PwC says that since the “financial crash”, Belfast’s overall index score has improved, with only London, Liverpool and Newcastle performing better. This has primarily been driven by an improvement in the skills of people aged between 16 - 54.
PwC says that while Belfast lags behind the national average in this critical measurement, there is reason to be optimistic this direction of travel will continue.
Over the last 12 months, skills in the 16 to 24 age category has seen the greatest improvement, in contrast to a slight decline across UK cities.
The recent PwC ‘Upskilling Hopes and Fears report’ found people in Northern Ireland are being offered more upskilling opportunities by employers to adjust to increasing automation in the workplace than any other UK region, and four out of five would take the opportunity to better understand and use new technologies.
Similarly, while the city is behind the average of competitor cities in terms of new business creation, over the past year this benchmark has seen strong increases, as well as in income and in the reduction of carbon emissions.
In 2018, Belfast City Council was recognised for making the most improvement in its recycling performance outs of councils across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a result of the ‘No Food Waste in Black Bins’ campaign which led to a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
For several of these ‘good growth’ indicators, Belfast performs above average yet its score has dropped since the previous index with the ‘price of success’ rearing its head in terms of housing affordability becoming more challenging, an increase in the number of people working over 45 hours/week.
Londonderry saw above average growth in income distribution compared to the 11 cities in the devolved nations on the list, as well as improvements in new jobs, income, new businesses, skills and a reduction in carbon emissions.
More than half (56%) of those who were unemployed in August fell into the one year or more category.
David Quinn, PwC NI Partner, commented: “With two City Deals now on the table for Northern Ireland, there is a critical window of opportunity for stakeholders to work collaboratively on a shared and credible economic future and seize the potential in these large-scale investments.
“With Belfast and Derry performing well in terms of bringing in new jobs, it’s important that lessons learned from achieving this goal are now applied to other areas.
“Successful city planning involves creating high-density urban centres and, with ambitions to move 66,000 people into Belfast by 2035, the way people here live and work could be radically transformed.
“The price of success is taking a toll on housing affordability and, while conditions are better here than in the majority of other cities, this could be impacted if people start to move in without sufficient supply to meet demand.
However, there are many factors which need to be addressed to support this – the water system being possibly the most urgent as we see from NI Water’s ‘No drains, no cranes’ campaign.
“One of the crucial areas will be in continuing to support the growth in skills, which feeds into the creation of new businesses. The appetite for upskilling among workers as well as employers proactively investing in their workforce – particularly during the uncertainty around Brexit - means we’re on the front foot to benefit from employability programmes funded by the City Deals.
Welcoming the report, Belfast City Council chief executive Suzanne Wylie said: “There are a lot of encouraging indicators that we are on the right track towards achieving the inclusive growth which is at the heart of the Belfast Agenda, and which will be bolstered by the Belfast Region City Deal.
“As a transformed city, we are still at the start of our journey; but the strategic approach taken by council and our commitment to addressing employability and skills is paying dividends, as evidenced in today’s report.
A skilled workforce will attract investment, and our investment in innovation and technology and the introduction of local full fibre network, will make us one of the most connected cities in the UK which will be a draw for multi-nationals.
“I’m also encouraged to see that the environmental improvements we have achieved as a city have been recognised as contributing to our growth.
“As we work to deliver the Belfast City Region Deal, we will be focusing on developing a distinct set of industries and growth sectors but we cannot do it alone; so I’m delighted that Derry has also experienced significant growth as it makes the whole of the North much more competitive on a global scale which can only be good news for the entire region.”
PwC partner Jonathan House added: “In an era of political, technological and environmental disruption, cities and regions that want to get ahead, need to do things differently.
“Even with the uncertainty of Brexit, over the last year, local leaders have had significant success in delivering good growth in their cities and regions. Our research shows the need to take a comprehensive approach to growth, focusing on improving productivity to compete on a global stage, but also on ensuring fairness and inclusive growth so that people and places don’t feel left behind.
“Local leaders need to take a broad view on what economic success means, focusing on the outcomes they want to achieve in terms of inclusive growth, community resilience and improved experience, and crucially, having a plan to translate those ambitions into reality.
“Skills amongst the working age population, alongside the number of new businesses created, have seen the largest improvements; this is a result of leaders focusing on building new opportunities and investing in the talent of their city and region.
“The UK’s cities are known globally for their skills, innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. Our most successful cities don’t compete against other UK cities, they compete against cities across Europe, the Middle East and the US. As the UK’s position on the world stage shifts, cities and regions will need to reposition themselves too, and consider how they can stand out and compete globally, improve productivity and support innovation, while also creating places that are fair and inclusive.”