Published: 11th Mar 2016

Belfast Council has added new responsibilities to its portfolio, including social enterprise development. Its chief executive Suzanne Wylie talks to New Start about supporting social start-ups, inclusive growth and stopping the brain drain

Q: What are the key challenges for the local economy in Belfast?

A: We are far too dependent on the public sector for jobs – more than a third of all jobs in the city are in the public sector. That’s already an issue and is going to become an increasingly important one as pressure increases to reduce the public sector. The need to rebalance the economy through additional growth within private industry continues. We have a significant level of new jobs coming from Foreign Direct Investment and they can be part of the solution but they are not the panacea. We need to create and grow more indigenous businesses and we need those businesses to improve their productivity by looking to new markets and embracing new technologies and ways of working. Northern Ireland continues to have a significant financial deficit and the only way that we can reduce this is by increasing productivity and reducing reliance on the block grant from Westminster. If we are to be a progressive, sustainable, competitive city with a great quality of life for the people who live here we need to solve some of these significant problems in our system. Devolution to a local assembly represents a significant step forward but we also need more powers passed to local government so we can lead a place-based approach.

Q: The city has some difficult social issues that are impacting on the local economy. Would you agree?

A: Yes. Economic inactivity is too high – 31% of people are economically inactive for a range of reasons. Youth unemployment is 25% and long term unemployment is 37%. There are also significant health problems, especially with mental health issues, leading to an increase of those living on Disability Living Allowance. While we have a good education system here, one which frequently produces the best A-level results in the UK, we still have too large a section of our working age population without the basic qualifications or the skillsets to fully equip them for the workplace. We need to address this and raise expectations in communities where there may have been less of a focus on the importance of education. This also includes increasing mobility around the city and encouraging people to travel outside of their communities for work. Unfortunately there are still areas of segregation within our city which can compound deprivation.

Another area that needs more emphasis is increasing innovation and entrepreneurship. Small business growth is not high enough. Historically, Northern Ireland has suffered from the ‘brain drain’. We want to keep our talent here and to do that we are working hard to forge a strong and balanced economy. We have come from a very successful industrial past. You only have to look at the architecture of the buildings around the city to see how wealthy and ambitious it was in the 1900s. We need to build on the creativity that people have and incentivise that to help boost social innovation to resolve some of the difficult issues that remain within the city.

Q: What are your plans for the local economy and, in particular, connecting its social and economic progress?

A: We have developed our strategy for the next 15 years: the Belfast Agenda. It’s about driving growth and improving lives; the two ends of the spectrum which need to be joined up. We are basing it on an inclusive growth model, so we need to ensure that the outcomes we want to achieve such as the reduction of deprivation, poverty and inequality are connected to the economic growth of the city. We need to help develop capacity and innovation within local communities. We have a real opportunity right now and momentum to drive change. The continued growth in tourism, the knowledge economy and FDI presents a real opportunity for Belfast, but our approach will be to develop early interventions, skills, training and employability programmes which reach into the hearts of the most deprived communities and create pathways to these jobs of the future.

We are also introducing an employability scheme which will mentor young people and other groups through this pathway from education and into placements and jobs. Not only have we as an authority created many of those placements but we are also working with the new employers such as new hoteliers, the growing hospitality sector and other key employers to create those opportunities for young people coming through these programmes.

We work closely with our vibrant community sector and the new Department for Communities which still retains control of regeneration. It was proposed that regeneration powers would transfer to local councils and we expect that to be looked at again as part of the next programme for government. If it does, this will be an opportunity to refocus and align programmes, investment and funding as well as introduce aspects of social innovation to help solve local problems.

Q: How can you ensure that development – the re-location of Ulster University to Belfast city centre for example – benefits local communities and the local social economy?

A: We look at new investments in the city as much more than capital investments. They can be catalysts for physical, social and economic regeneration and create job opportunities for residents that are further from the jobs market. We have introduced social clauses into contracts. However we feel that there are other, more sustainable ways of encouraging access to employment through procurement and we are trying to push the boundaries in terms of commissioning. In the development of our new Innovation Factory, an incubation hub, we held a competitive dialogue process with potential developers and for the first time scored them as highly on their plans for the social regeneration impact of the building as other impacts. It forced the bidders to think differently and understand the issues of the place in which the building is based. We need a more normative approach to ensuring that the community benefit of development is articulated and considered.

Q: In what ways are you helping the social economy to expand in Belfast and to enable social innovation in the city?

A: Councils are now responsible for social enterprise development – these powers were transferred to us in April last year. The social economy sector is particularly vibrant in Belfast. Many of those social enterprises have evolved from community-based organisations but we recognise that it is not always an easy transition and so we have put in place support programmes to help them with issues such as bidding for public sector contracts and managing cashflow. We are just about to commence delivery of a new programme which will have a target of supporting fifty new social enterprise start-ups each year. As a council, we encourage social value where possible through the supply chain, for example our in-house cafe operator in the city hall is a social enterprise, working with disabled people.

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