When Northern Ireland’s high street voucher scheme — giving £100 pre-paid cards to hundreds of thousands of people across the country — began rolling out, the critics were lining up for it to be a massive failure.
There were teething problems. Some people had difficulty in registering and when the cards started arriving, some reported problems with shops being unable to accept payments.
Being the first region to embrace such a scheme — which will end at a cost of around £145 million — was always going to be fraught with difficulties.
The stories of some people going into supermarkets and spending their £100 on vouchers for online retailers like Amazon soon started appearing.
That things could have been done differently are obvious in hindsight.
While initially the cards started to arrive at the right time to give a much needed boost to the local economy, Queen’s University academic John Turner, co-author of research into the scheme, has said the ultimate economic benefit could effectively be watered down by the decision to extend it into mid-December when much Christmas spending would be taking place regardless. He has now suggested that the scheme — giving every adult, regardless of their means, a £100 pre-paid debit card to spend in bricks-and-mortar shops — should instead have targeted lower-income households.
There is, of course, plenty of merit in that, particularly if the money could have been spent on maintaining the £20 weekly uplift to Universal Credit which ended in October.
Elsewhere, in Jersey, a similar scheme put £100 into the bank accounts of some pensioners and people on benefits, but the NI plan was to boost local business. Drawing a line between those who were eligible and those who weren’t would have caused even more contention.
There’s no doubt the Spend Local cards were delivered with good intentions. But as with all new schemes, that well worn phrase ‘lessons can be learnt’ apply.
With better planning more shops could have benefited, more people would not have been left out in the cold over problems with applying and there would have been no need to extend it until December 19.
While Stormont fingers may not have been badly burned, the fingertips have been singed enough to call off a similar idea to support the hotels and hospitality industry.
Any real success will be measured by the health of the high street through 2022.