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Belfast is the top performing city in the devolved administrations

Belfast skyline

Belfast is the top ranking city in the devolved administrations, performing above the UK average for work-life balance, jobs, housing, transport, income distribution and safety, according to PwC’s Good Growth for Cities Index.


The Demos-PwC Good Growth for Cities Index ranks 50 of the UK’s largest cities, based on the public’s assessment of 12 economic measures, including jobs, health, income, safety and skills, as well as work-life balance, housing, travel-to-work times, income equality, high street shops, environment and business startups. 



This year, Belfast ranks ninth in the Index out of 50 UK cities, above all other devolved cities. The city maintains its top 10 position from last year’s Index, where we saw Belfast ranked eighth based upon previous analysis. 


Oxford, Swindon, Exeter, Bristol and Southampton make up the top five cities in the overall Index. Cities in the lower performing end of the Index include London, Bradford, Middlesbrough and Stockton, Birmingham and Manchester. 



Uk city growth graphic

The Index shows Belfast is performing above or in line with the UK average across two thirds of the Index measures. It scores above the UK average for work-life balance, jobs, health, youth skills, house price to earnings, transport, income distribution and safety; and in line with the UK average for owner-occupation rates. In contrast, Belfast performs below the average for income, new businesses, adult skills, the environment and high streets. The variable with the biggest improvement in its score in Belfast was work-life-balance, which improved significantly more than the UK average. On the other hand, health saw the biggest decrease in Belfast.  


Belfast is expected to experience the highest rate of economic growth for all the cities located in devolved nations in the Index, with a forecast of 0.23% in 2023 and 1.00% in 2024. This is higher than the UK wide average of 0.05% growth in 2023 and 0.99% in 2024. 



Belfast’s strong growth is primarily driven by the sectoral composition of the city’s economy. Generally, the city tends to have an above average share of its activity within some of the sectors that are expected to experience relatively strong growth in the next two years, while it also tends to have a below-average share of its activity within some of the sectors that are expected to perform poorly in the future. For example, the city has an above average share of activity within the human health and social work sector, which is expected to grow by 1.0% in 2023 and 1.8% in 2024 (the third fastest growing industry). And Belfast has a lower share of economic activity in the real estate activities, which is expected to shrink by 0.52% in 2023. 


Cat McCusker, regional market leader for PwC Northern Ireland

Cat McCusker, regional market leader for PwC Northern Ireland, says:


“It’s great to see Belfast continue to perform so well in the Good Growth for Cities Index.


“Our analysis shows people here are prioritising work-life balance more than in previous years as post-pandemic changes to working patterns allow people greater flexibility, greater control over working location and support better work-life balance. As a result, this is helping to unlock good growth. 


“Belfast is also set to break away from the sluggish economic growth expected to be seen in most cities, along with London and Liverpool, as it is buoyed by relatively high-growth sectors. This strong growth is likely to drive growth across Northern Ireland as a whole.



“However, we must continue to focus on how we can maximise Belfast’s growth potential. A key part of our purpose at PwC is leading on some of the big issues and promoting the role of business in doing so, for example, addressing regional inequality and social mobility, achieving net zero, and investing in upskilling the workforce of the future. We are a strong supporter of economic growth in NI and are keen to see the region become a destination for skills, innovation, technology & tourism excellence. It is crucial that the narrative of NI’s economy is reframed in a way that leverages its unique trading position, and does more to promote a positive story about NI to the rest of the world.”


Public priorities turn to cost of living


For the first time the Index provides a regional breakdown of public priorities, underlining what issues are important to people at a local level. As households struggle with the cost of living crisis, people in Northern Ireland are prioritising, compared to the UK average, financial issues, such as income, jobs and the fair distribution of income. 


However, other public priorities - most likely impacted by cost of living pressures dampening consumer appetite for spending - have fallen, including the strength of the high street and housing. Safety is also seen as less of a priority by individuals in Belfast compared to elsewhere in the UK.



Unlocking potential for growth


The Good Growth for Cities Index shows the gap between the highest and lowest ranked UK cities narrowing, as the economic measures of the cities at the bottom of the Index have improved at a faster rate than those at the top.


PwC’s research shows little evidence of the regional disparity gap narrowing overall and argues that progress in levelling-up the UK is too slow. PwC recommends the need for more radical and ambitious devolution of governance and powers to a regional, local and hyper-local level, including greater fiscal flexibility and innovation to help cities respond to their specific challenges. 


This includes steps towards greater fiscal flexibility and innovation at a city level, such as those included in Greater Manchester’s trailblazing devolution deal, which allows for 100% retention of business rates. 



Jason Calvert, economist and place & purpose co-leader for PwC Northern Ireland, says: 


“Fully unlocking the potential for growth in Belfast and across Northern Ireland will require creativity and collaboration across all levels of government, public and private sectors and with citizens to deliver the best results for places and people.


“There needs to be a continued focus on longer-term levers for economic growth here, including stimulating investment, getting more people into work, and underpinning all of this with support for skills and education.


“The issues and opportunities are complex, and no one organisation or type of organisation can tackle them successfully on their own. Rather, the business community needs to work alongside government and other stakeholders to drive sustainable change through meaningful collaboration on policy, strategy, and business planning.


“The Belfast Region City Deal is an example of our existing excellence and ‘can do’ attitude which makes us so unique. The City Deal is a catalyst for business growth through research and development, with critical investment in five university-led innovation and research centres already in the pipeline.”

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