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Do we really live in one of the worst places in the UK?

A new survey gives Northern Ireland a resounding thumbs down in its ‘lifestyle index’. We ask two local writers if they agree with the findings

Published 23/10/2015

Home comforts: the Mourne Mountains
Home comforts: the Mourne Mountains
Samson and Goliath cranes in East Belfast
Cathedral Quarter

Northern Ireland is one of the worst regions to live in the UK, according to a shock survey just published, with every part of the province except for Belfast and surrounding districts in the bottom 10 places.

The survey, conducted by the energy comparison website, flies in the face of several other feelgood reports on the province which recommended it as a top visitor destination and comes only a couple of days after it was announced that the most prestigious tournament in world golf, The Open, is to come to Royal Portrush in 2019. Another recent report, David Cameron’s Happiness Index, said Northern Ireland people were the happiest in the UK — though their attitude may change after reading this latest survey.

A total of 138 regions were assessed for 26 different factors including salaries, disposable household income and the cost of essential goods, such as fuel, food and energy bills, as well as lifestyle factors such as working hours, life expectancy and hours of sunshine.

The report says Northern Ireland has the highest average energy bills at £1,850 per household and says Belfast is the most crime-ridden place in the UK, followed by the east of the province.

One positive factor highlighted was the average rates bill for Belfast home owners, which at £819 is the lowest in the UK.

The best place to live in Northern Ireland according to the report is outer Belfast which comes in at 94 on the league table, followed by the capital itself at 104.

The rest makes depressing reading with the east of the province lying in 130th position, followed by the west and south at 134 and the north of the province at 136, beaten only by Kingston Upon Hull and Bradford.

Every part of Northern Ireland saw its ranking plummet since the last survey conducted by the company in 2013.

East Northern Ireland fell most by 91 places, Belfast (minus 82), West and South (minus 75), North (minus 68) and Outer Belfast (minus 33).

But is the survey an accurate reflection of life in Northern Ireland? Here, two writers give their views.

Alex Kane says yes: Keep scrolling down. And down. Down past Edinburgh, York, Derby, Telford and Wrekin and West Lothian. Stop. There’s Outer Belfast and Belfast at 94 and 104.

Keep going down. Way past Argyll and Bute and the Western Isles and lots of other quaint Scottish places you’ve only heard of in reruns of Rob Roy and Dr Finlay’s Casebook. Oh look! There’s East of Northern Ireland, West and South of Northern Ireland and North of Northern Ireland at 130, 134 and 136.

Thank God for Kingston Upon Hull and Bradford for sparing our blushes and keeping us off the bottom slot.

But can these figures be right? According to Press releases from the Executive and speeches from individual ministers, Northern Ireland should be topping this list.

They tell us almost every day what a wonderful job they have made of the place: so good, in fact, that the world is beating a path to our door. Yet, judging by this evidence, Northern Ireland would be lucky to outrank even one of Dante’s nine circles of hell.

We were rated on a number of criteria, including life expectancy, crime and mortality rates, disposable income, crowded schools, working hours, hours of sunshine, GCSE results and house prices.

And the statistics seem to suggest that most of us have little money to spend on ourselves, work too long, rarely see sunshine, stuff up when it comes to exams and pop our socks far too early.

Thank goodness they didn’t ask about confidence in devolution and the paramilitary assessment panel, or we would have gone into freefall.

Back in 2013 — ah, do you remember those heady, blissful days (no, neither do I) — we were doing very well. Belfast came in at 22, Outer Belfast managed a halfway decent 61 and the East of Northern Ireland sat on a very creditable 39.

Yet all three are down — by 82, 33 and 91 places respectively. While other places slipped down a little, we hurtled downwards, seemingly without warning, let alone a parachute.

But, let’s be honest, is anyone really surprised? We make a huge song and dance about attracting the Open and the Giro d’Italia; welcoming yet another low-pay call-centre; and waving hello as another massive cruise ship drops anchor and dumps tourists in a city centre that shuts at night and doesn’t open on a Sunday morning.

But isn’t that just part of a feelgood exercise? We make the fuss because there really isn’t very much to get excited about.

Look at the past few weeks on the political front. Most people weren’t complaining about the dysfunctional government, or the tortoise pace of the talks process, or even the seemingly perpetual inability to get anything agreed.

No, what annoyed them most was that the MLAs were being paid too much and having their food and mileage heavily subsidised, while a majority — and it is a majority, according to these figures — are struggling to make ends meet, pay mortgages and get a decent education for their children.

That anger is a pretty accurate reflection of their own circumstances compared with that of the MLAs and MPs: and this latest league table reflects the reality of life for far too many people across Northern Ireland.

It reflects the economic downturn which has hit us harder than many other parts of the United Kingdom and it reflects a sense of despondency which is switching so many people off from politics here.

Politicians from all parties will be lining up to dispute these figures and trying to persuade us that “when you look closely at the reality concealed by these statistics and factor in the upheavals and changes we have endured since — go on, pick a date at random from 1122 onwards — then it’s clear that we are living in a world of milk, honey, fudge and humbug. We need to focus on the positive and not allow our wee country to be dragged back to the bad old days, which were someone else’s fault anywhere. So there.”

I know the argument about lies, damned lies and statistics and the temptation to resort to a blindfold when faced with reality. But these gloomy figures strike me as reasonably accurate.

One thing we do have in our favour, though: if we can put up with the clownish antics of our politicians for this long, then I’m pretty sure we will still find reasons to be chirpy — no matter how bad things may be.

Frances Burscough says no: I'm always slightly suspicious when I read big surveys which pertain to a certain quality of life. Being a natural cynic, I usually look first at the organisation that has conducted the survey to see if I can work out what they hope to gain from such painstaking and time-consuming research.

This latest one, A Quality of Life Index compiled by a company called uSwitch, is supposed to indicate which are the best and the worst places to live in the UK. Its findings would suggest that life in Northern Ireland is so grim it's barely worth living. Out of the 138 regions, Belfast and all of its environs are hovering close to the bottom, with the entire South and West of Ulster coming joint 134th.

But before we all just give up the ghost, let's just look at the criteria they used to draw these outrageous sweeping conclusions. Of the 26 factors they were testing, most are related to possessions and materialism and include house prices, disposable incomes, rates, salaries, rent prices, hours of sunshine, life expectancy and, er, broadband speed. Seriously? Is broadband speed really one of the key factors affecting an individual's quality of life? Well it certainly is if you are a price comparison website, which uSwitch is first and foremost.

So there we have it. In a nutshell. This is a survey conducted by a price comparison website - not unlike Compare the Meerkat or whatever it is called - to stir up a sense of discontent about our quality of life and make us look for alternatives. It's the 21st century virtual version of Keeping up with the Joneses. And where better than a price comparison website to do just that? Okay, a price comparison company can't do very much about our hours of sunshine, but it certainly can offer you a cheaper mortgage, or arrange a loan to make your house more valuable, or increase your vitally-important broadband speed.

If they had come to me when they were conducting this survey, the first thing I would have said is: hang on a minute, have you looked around you? Have you stopped and chatted with passers-by and seen how friendly people here are? Have you been out and looked at the glorious unspoilt scenery across the bay or taken a trip along the Lagan on one of the fascinating tour-boats? Or a night at the SSE Arena watching the Belfast Giants thrash the Nottingham Panthers while the cheerleaders, in-house drummers and crowd of loyal thousands go completely buck mad?

Have you ever strolled along the mouth of the River Lagan on a misty morning at dawn and startled a heron, or watched a peregrine falcon catching prey for its young on Cavehill?

And when was the last time you witnessed an historical schooner in full sail glide silently into the harbour, bedecked with the colourful flags and bunting from past international voyages? Have you ever taken a pint of porter in Kelly's Cellars or a hot whiskey, or five, in White's Tavern?

And what about a leisurely wee pub crawl through the Cathedral Quarter on a Friday night, stopping off for some live music at the Black Box or the Oh Yeah Centre?

Or what about an afternoon of vintage classic films at QFT followed by a leisurely stroll around the bounteous Botanic Gardens and a visit to the Ulster Museum?

Have you ever taken a day-trip down the Ards Peninsula exploring the idyllic deserted beaches all along the coast; the fishing villages in between; the historical grandeur of Mount Stewart one afternoon, the wildlife of Castle Espie the next, and then ending with a round trip on a speedboat out of Strangford Lough and into the sparkling open sea?

Or a fishing trip out along the Antrim coast and watching the gannets, shearwaters and grey seals all fighting to grab the mackerel off your line? Or a strenuous hike up to Silent Valley, followed by a relaxing picnic amidst a panoramic vista where the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea?

If you've done these things, then come back to me and we can talk about quality of life.

I've lived in Northern Ireland for 25 years and I still marvel at the place and all it has to offer almost every time I step out of my front door. The people are wonderfully friendly, the countryside is glorious and I wouldn't swap it for the world.

Before I moved here I was a native of Lancashire and had lived in various places around the UK including Preston, Manchester, Cheshire, Liverpool and London. I often return to visit family and friends there and I have to say that their quality of life is no better than mine, even though all of those places fare far higher on the list than Northern Ireland. Indeed, every time I have visitors over here, they always remark about how lovely the place is and how they envy my lifestyle. It's quite ironic don't you think though, that if I was ever to return to live in England I would love to live in West Yorkshire which to me is the most beautiful, cultured and inspiring part of mainland UK.

And guess where that came on the Quality of Life survey? Right at the very bottom. Last place; even below our wee country.

Belfast Telegraph

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