Northern Ireland families are worst off in UK
Households in Northern Ireland are more than £200-a-year better off than they were during the economic slump – but still lag significantly behind the rest of the UK.
The rise in spending power is an indicator that families here are beginning to see the economic recovery translate into more money in their pockets.
Figures released today show that the average local home has £80 per week to spend on non-essentials, compared to £170 elsewhere in the UK.
Notwithstanding the massive discrepancy – which graphically illustrates how Northern Ireland remains the hardest-hit region – the findings of Asda's latest income tracker mean the pain is finally starting to ease, albeit slowly.
Asda chief executive and president Andy Clarke said the positive trend was being driven by a combination of growing spending power and falling unemployment.
He added: "Importantly, these factors are combined with a fall in the price of petrol and food inflation, meaning that families have more breathing space when balancing the budget."
Northern Ireland discretionary income – the money which is left once taxes and spending on essentials like rent, utilities and bills has been deducted – has seen an increase of £4 on the last quarter.
Experts agree that this can be attributed to falling inflation, as a result of a drop in food and fuel prices.
This is coupled with the expectation that wages are likely to rise at a rate higher than inflation this year for the first time since 2008.
The Belfast Telegraph yesterday carried out a shopping test on a basket of 10 items in four supermarkets for price comparison purposes.
We used online prices for the groceries in the 'Big Three' – Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury's. We also visited a north Belfast Lidl store, which has many own brands, for the study.
Based on a mixture of seven family staples (bread, milk, margarine, eggs, teabags, potatoes and minced beef) and three luxury products (chocolates, wine and ice-cream), the average basket price was around £26.
Our straw poll also found there was only a difference of £4.47 between the most expensive shop (at £28.09 in Sainsbury's) and the cheapest (£23.62 in Lidl).
Householders can, however, expect even better news as the cost of food is likely to fall in the coming weeks.
That's because Tesco is likely to instigate a supermarket price war as it seeks to recover some of the market share it has lost to discount retailers recently.
Economist John Simpson (below) said one of the main problems here is that average earnings are between 16-18% lower than the rest of the UK.
"The situation is improving, which is welcome, but as is consistent with everything else in terms of recovery from recession, Northern Ireland's improvement is slower than the improvement for the UK as a whole and the more prosperous regions," he said.
"The most important question is whether Northern Ireland is ever going to catch up when it comes to average incomes.
"Also, don't forget that the gap between private and public sector wages – which is wider here than anywhere else in the UK – is getting wider for the moment," Mr Simpson added.
The latest Income Tracker also revealed that the effects of the economic recovery are being felt right across the UK, with discretionary incomes now rising in every region.
Northern Ireland and the North East experienced some of the strongest growth in the three months to March, rising 4.8% and 5.5%.
The average NI household had £80 per week of discretionary income in March 2014, an increase of £4 on the last quarter;
NI lags far behind the UK average family spending of £170 per week, up £7 a week year-on-year
The increase was driven by falling unemployment and a slowdown in the rate of inflation, thanks to a 6.6% drop in petrol prices.
It may not seem like it, but things are starting to get a little easier
By Gareth Heatherington
The good economic news has been flowing for almost two years now, but the common retort has been: why are we not feeling it?
The simple reason is that although employment levels have been rising since 2012, average wages have been flat or rising at a pace lower than inflation.
Therefore, with prices rising faster than incomes, we have been feeling poorer for each of the last five years.
Thankfully, it now seems we are finally starting to turn the corner and this year wages are likely to rise at a rate higher than inflation for the first time since 2008.
There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, inflation has been falling and currently sits at 1.6% – below the Bank of England's target rate of 2%.
A strong sterling exchange rate and falling oil prices have combined to push fuel prices down to a five-year low.
It may not seem like it at the petrol pumps when we are filling up our cars, but the cost of fuel is no longer rising and the lower cost of oil will start to filter through.
That and the prospect of a supermarket price war, as Tesco seeks to recover lost market share and the other major chains seek to hold on to whatever gains they have made at its expense, should help to reduce the cost of the weekly groceries.
Secondly, as reported in the Asda Income Tracker, the average Northern Ireland consumer had £4 per week higher discretionary income in the first quarter of 2014 (January to March) than in the final quarter of 2013 (October to December).
Discretionary income represents the income left after taxes and essentials like rent and utility costs have been deducted.
While this very moderate rise will hardly give cause to pop the champagne corks just yet, it is particularly good news for people here who have been hit hardest by the recent economic crisis.
Northern Ireland has a greater proportion of its population living in fuel poverty than elsewhere in the UK and the current lower fuel costs should provide at least some respite.
In addition, for those on lower incomes, and again Northern Ireland has a much higher proportion of people on lower incomes than the rest of the UK, the cost of food has taken an increasingly large share of the weekly take-home pay.
For example, we have seen food prices rise by approximately 30% since 2008, compared to a near zero increase in food prices in the Republic of Ireland.
The one thing we all agree on in Northern Ireland is that it has been getting harder to make ends meet for an extended period of time.
However, we are now seeing clear evidence that things are starting to get a little easier.
Gareth Hetherington is Associate Director Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy