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Implementing lessons from the Primark crisis to Homelessness Funding

26 November 2018

Primark Fire Photo Credit Nifrs

Primark fire - photo credit NIFRS

Jim Dennison, Chief Executive at Simon Community NI, provides insight on the response taken to the Primark fire.

Updated 17/12/2018

On Saturday 8th December, crowds flocked from across Northern Ireland to support the new Primark store, in Belfast City Centre, with more than 1,000 people queuing outside. Crowd control measures, including crush barriers, were put in place and Belfast’s Lord Mayor Deirdre Hargey also attended the opening to pay tribute to the city. All just four months after Primark's flag ship building was destroyed. 

The Primark fire highlights the collaborative and speedy approach that departments can take in the wake of a crisis. While this response has undoubtedly been a massive benefit to Belfast, especially in the run up to Christmas, it inevitably raises the question, where is this response in relation to the Homelessness Crisis in Northern Ireland? 

The Head of Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, recently announced £1.1 million would be awarded to Belfast City centre, to help with the recovery from the Primark fire. This in addition to crisis funding from the Department of Communities, brings the total to £580,000 to provide places for people to relax, eat and enjoy the city. A further £400,000 from the Department for the Economy to be spent on a range of initiatives to boost tourism and increase visitor numbers to the city centre. And an injection of £500,000 from the Department of Infrastructure to allow Translink to deliver a high impact festive travel campaign. This funding boost comes on the back of Belfast City Council’s announcement in October, which detailed a £1.7million contribution, the £2million announced by Chancellor Philip Hammond and £500,000 given by Primark to provide support to traders.

I welcome, and applaud, this collaborative style of working where councils, departments, government and businesses collectively see the role they can play in responding to a crisis – the Primark fire and 60% decrease in shopper footfall is most definitely a business crisis that impacts livelihoods and the joy of Christmas.

The £5.3million total aimed at bringing people back to the city just highlights how costly it can be to respond to a situation. However, I must question where the same level of response and funding from the departments is in the wake of Northern Ireland’s current homelessness crisis? For a long time, Simon Community NI has lobbied for longer term cross-departmental working. It should not take a severe winter or deaths on the street for collaboration and reactive funding to materialise. What should be taken into consideration when making decisions is the 20,000 children on housing waiting lists, the 49 adults per day registering as homeless and, most importantly, the three people who on average die each week whilst waiting for a home.


In Northern Ireland, the Housing Executive, Department for Communities, Health Trusts and Probation Board should be making the case for the Supporting People Programme. Supporting People provides funding for vital accommodation and support services to the most vulnerable in society and whilst £72.8 million is a significant sum of money, every £1 spent on Supporting People saves the public purse £1.90 with the programme supporting 20,000 people each year. Instead of better investment in this lifeline funding the Housing Executive has cut it by 5%.


Housing Executive figures already indicate future planning will need to reflect increased numbers of older people living in their own or social homes and demand for special need support is also increasing. Significantly, homeless and vulnerable young people applications have doubled in four years. Additional to this, the Supporting People budget has seen no inflationary uplift in 10 years, which is having an impact in the local area where services providing vital independence and dignity to individuals are stretched to breaking point.

Despite successive and increasing budgetary pressures, a need for additional services and a sustainable funding model; accommodation-based services have had their budgets cut by 5% from April 2018. This is in direct contrast with Paul Givan’s decision to provide an additional £3 million when he was Minister for Communities.

In this year’s Westminster Budget, Northern Ireland was promised additional spending power. Those in charge of the purse strings should take lessons from their response to the Primark crisis and focus on the needs of our society’s most vulnerable in any decision making. The Supporting People budget urgently requires proper resourcing to deliver services effectively – now is the time for collaboration when tackling the homelessness crisis with 2019 being the year where, together, decision makers can make real and lasting impacts.