PF Live Northern Ireland – 24 October 2023

Public Finance Live Northern Ireland took place in the Hilton Hotel Belfast and was attended by over 100 people. The conference was expertly chaired by local journalist and broadcaster William Crawley, and there were a number of exhibiting sponsors – MCS Group, CCLA, RSPB and the NI Audit Office.

Keynote speech

Sir Mark Lowcock, CIPFA Junior Vice President, set the global scene for delegates as he talked about the main global forces at work today – geopolitics, global economics, technology and climate change.

The keynote address was given by Professor Sir John Curtice, Professor of Practice Politics at the University of Strathclyde and frequent contributor to TV discussions about the polling fortunes of the major political parties in the UK. He confirmed the Conservative Party is in a deep electoral hole based on the latest polling data and recent trends, but that the Labour Party’s appeal is not without a number of challenges. The biggest challenges for the current government in getting re-elected, he said, lie in the public’s generally negative perceptions of political leadership, the economy and public services.

Gareth Hetherington, Director of Ulster University’s Economic Policy Centre, reminded delegates that Northern Ireland has the highest percentage level of economic inactivity in the UK and that there are now much fewer people of working age due to demographic changes.

CIPFA’s voice

Dr Eleanor Roy, Health and Social Care Policy Manager at CIPFA, spoke about the preventative benefits of investing in health in light of the fact that the need for healthcare is forecast to rise nine times faster than the revenue to fund it. She suggested that more funding should be directed towards upstream services rather than downstream, acute services. In her view, this will require finance professionals to persuade politicians to make better, longer-term decisions.

In one of the optional seminars, CIPFA Local Government Policy Manager Joanne Pitt spoke about the importance of both good decision-making and financial management as a means of providing strong governance. Like Dr Roy, Joanne said that finance professionals need to do all they can to help decision-makers make good choices through the effective presentation of financial information and advising on financial resilience.

The importance of leadership in uncertain times

Elma Murray, Chair of Young Scot and Deputy Chair of Developing the Young Workforce (DYW), spoke about leadership during austerity and uncertain times. She said that leadership is about social influence, maximising the efforts of others, challenging the status quo and putting yourself in others’ shoes. With regard to stewardship, she said that this is essentially about looking after your team’s interests.

Grainia Long, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, spoke about the current landscape for the provision of public services such as social housing. In her passionate talk, she said that we underestimate what we can achieve in the long term but overestimate what we can achieve in the short term. Turning to the idea of perma-crisis, she went on to say that while macro and micro crises give organisations opportunities to do things differently, we need to distinguish between different sets of problems and fully understand them before we can try to solve them or ease them.

Closing remarks

As I write this reflection on the 2023 PF Live Northern Ireland conference, I remain thankful for the opportunities that I and many others had to listen to such an interesting range of speakers, to network with a range of delegates from many different organisations and to get away from the laptop to consider the bigger picture as a public finance professional.

I would encourage all CIPFA members in Northern Ireland to make plans to attend the 2024 conference if they can and to invite others to join you. Full details on this year’s conference will be publicised on the CIPFA website in due course.

—Dean Russell, CIPFA Northern Ireland branch committee member