Derry consumers are feeling more flush than their Belfast counterparts these days, according to research compiled by The Consumer Council.
The watchdog’s Chief Executive, John French, outlined the North West’s relative optimism during a presentation to Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Governance and Strategic Planning Committee on Tuesday.
Mr. French revealed The Consumer Council’s bespoke ‘confidence index’ gave Derry and Strabane a score of 79.3 last autumn, explaining that although this was down on an even better score of 87.3 a year ago, it was still far ahead of Belfast, where the score has hovered around 50 for the past year.
Derry consumers are also more likely to splurge than the average spender/saver across the North. The Northern average hasn’t deviated significantly either side of the 70 mark over the past three years.
Mr. French said the Consumer Council is at a loss for an explanation for the exponential rise in confidence witnessed in Derry and Strabane from the spring of 2015.
“We’re trying to understand why there is this extra confidence here in the North West,” he said.
SDLP Councillor John Boyle, responding to this point, said: “I don’t know what the answer is to the question ‘why is Derry more confident?’ but it certainly belies the notion that people here are whingers.”
During the course of a detailed presentation both Mr. French and Philippa McKeown-Brown, The Consumer Council’s Head of Consumer Empowerment and Protection, discussed a range of issues affecting consumers across the North, including bank closures and energy prices.
Independent Councillor Darren O’Reilly raised Firmus’ recent 12.2 per cent gas price hike, which was almost double a 7.6 per cent rise announced by SSE Airtricity. He said people in the North had few alternatives in the gas market.
Mr. French said: “I completely agree. The market opened four years ago. Unfortunately no-one has come into the market in that time.”
The Consumer Council boss said that while the Utility Regulator acts as a “pseudo-competitor”, a lack of competition, particularly in the gas market in the west, was “sub-optimum” and there needed to be more competition to protect consumers.
The impending closure of the First Trust on the Crescent Link in July and the Ulster Bank at the Millennium Forum in October were also raised. Mr. French said The Consumer Council was engaging with banks locally over both closures and bank charges.
“We’ve been developing a relationship with the major banks,” he said, adding: “It’s been hard but we’ve made good headway in recent years.”
He suggested the bad publicity attracted by the closure of a Bank of Ireland in Belleek has “affected all of them” and that none of the local banks want that sort of publicity. He said The Consumer Council has pointed out to bank management that they have a social function within communities. Mr. French said a bank account comparison tool launched by the watchdog last month will benefit local consumers.
“You are more likely to get divorced than change your bank account,” he noted.
He told the committee that The Consumer Council was trying to persuade more people that they have the power to switch their accounts.