Transforming Northern Ireland

21 Nov 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 21 Nov 2019

Pic: Unsplash

Northern Ireland’s new think tank has just published its first piece of work.

Pivotal’s Moving Forward report is a high level analysis of the social and economic challenges we face and goes on to pose a series of questions which will provide focus to its future work.

As Scope has already argued the purpose of a think tank is to do what politicians and civil servants can’t. It looks  long term at the issues that we face, to provide insights on them, to stimulate public debate, and to help government shape future policy to face up to challenges.

In Northern Ireland political discourse has been dominated by constitutional issues to the extent that we have had no government for more than 1,000 days.

Elections – and the current one will be no exception – descend into sectarian headcounts. Brexit is exacerbating rather than alleviating this. Important policy issues do surface but in this election as in all others they are subsumed by toxic rows over communal identity and sovereignty.

When government has been in place there have been some efforts to address at least some of them, but the record is poor. There has been little, if any, progress in tackling inequality, in transforming the economy and in enacting reforms required to transform health and social care.

Whatever government has been doing, it’s not working. Help is needed, hence Pivotal.

Moving Forward is a useful summary of the some of the most important challenges that we face. There’s nothing new in any of them, but that’s the point. These are issues that have been simmering for decades. The point is they need to be addressed – and we’re running out of time.

The report concludes that “we are unprepared for a world changing at an increasing pace.”

But it is also claims: “We can create a thriving society and fulfil Northern Ireland’s potential.” If this is to be the case we had better get on with it.

The report focuses on six areas, all inter-linked and all demanding immediate attention: the economy; health and social care; education; poverty and disadvantage; environment and climate change; and community relations.

Northern Ireland’s economy is in a poor state. Productivity is the lowest across the UK as does economic activity which stands at an alarming 25.8%. Gross Value Added – the total value of goods and services produced in an area – is the third lowest per head out of the 12 UK regions.

Crucially the gap between public spending and tax revenue raised is £4,939 per person, again the highest out of all UK regions. To put this most starkly Northern Ireland is dependent on subsidies. It cannot sustain itself, it is therefore an economic basket case. Even to those entirely consumed with the national question, on either side, this makes it an extremely unattractive prospect.

Then there is the  desperate need to invest in infrastructure, for example the report states: “Sewerage and water infrastructure are at or beyond capacity in many places, limiting new development and raising environmental risks.”

So how do we raise the money to improve infrastructure and reduce traffic congestion? And when we do how do we balance that with the equally urgent need to improve the environment and reduce pollution?

And how do we encourage, and, presumably, incentivise local business to invest more in innovation? Currently Northern Ireland has he fewest number of firms in the UK (39%) involved in any kind of innovation at all.

A major inhibitor for improving the economy is to have a workforce with high skills levels and educational attainment. Northern Ireland has a low level of educational attainment and skills compared with other UK regions.

This bring us to our education system. Northern Ireland has the lowest skill levels of any UK region, with 24.7% of 25-64 year olds only having completed lower secondary education or less (meaning they have no qualifications above GCSEs or equivalent), according to the report.

So a key question posed by the report is: “Is our education system preparing young people for life and work in a changing world?

It clearly isn’t for far too many. This is urgent if Northern Ireland’s economy is to be competitive, but it also leads into one of the other issues the report identifies: poverty and disadvantage.

There’s a clear, well-established link between poor educational achievement and poverty. And low skills equals low wages, and, as automation increases in industry, no wages at all. Per the report: “Levels of poverty in Northern Ireland remain stubbornly high. About a fifth of the population - including one quarter of all children - live in poverty.”

This becomes cyclical. Children who grow up in poverty  are much more likely to have lower educational attainment, be unemployed, and live in poverty later in life.

They are also more likely to suffer more ill health, both physical and mental, and live shorter lives than those from more affluent backgrounds, which links us to another of the report’s key issues: the health crisis. This does not just involve enacting the necessary reforms for both health and social care – and funding them, but also uplifting support for mental health services.

Northern Ireland has the highest rates of poor mental health in the UK, but devotes a small fraction of health spending to the issue. One in five adults experience a mental health problem at any given time. Only 5% of the health budget is set aside for mental health.

Health and well being are linked to a healthy environment. This bring us to another critical and urgent issue. The report states: “A decade after the UK Climate Change Act, Northern Ireland has set no emissions targets – unlike Scotland and Wales, both of which set their own targets in addition to those for the UK as a whole - and enacted no legislation. Since the Act came into force, emissions here have fallen by just 9% compared with 27% across the UK in general.”

If we are to make progress on this we will have to cut agricultural emissions. Per the report: “Current emissions from agriculture alone, which have remained steady since 1990, effectively consume the region’s entire allowance.”

This would mean providing support to farmers to start to shift production from livestock to crops and to re-forest some of their land. This would mean encouraging more people to eat healthier diets, which links back to improving health.

Moving Forward is an important document, and a great summary of some of the big challenges we face, all of which need urgent consideration and swift action.

Yet when we contemplate the sheer scale of the task, we will all be left hoping that the endearing optimism of it stating that “we can create a thriving society” can be realised. All the more reason to get involved and join this important debate.



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