Medium Sized Cities Can Show the Way…
By Richard Ball
Governments have recognised that cities are engines of growth critical to economic performance, and indeed regional and national recovery in the current climate. The large conurbations naturally make the headlines as the “core” cities receiving support towards economic development, but there are smaller cities that, comparatively and proportionately for their size, are punching well above their weight where people work, trade and innovate in exciting organisations directly driving significant economic growth.
Medium sized cities have seen very impressive employment growth over the last decade and have bucked the trend in terms of recession forecasts and trends. They have local and sub-regional economic geographies and populations which are interdependent in terms of the labour force, organisations and businesses they support, but also have their share of organisations operating nationally and internationally, performing in GVA terms above the national average.
They have a credible track record of job creation, business formation and survival, and have maintained a proactive and strategic approach to encouraging and enabling development to come to fruition, diversifying the economy and supporting the competitiveness of their key assets. They are the other platforms for economic renewal and revival in terms of where the national economy is today, a real opportunity for success and high economic and social return on investment.
I will refer here to the Exeter economy, with which I am most familiar, but there are others. Between 1999 and 2009, Exeter’s economy grew at 6.6% per annum, substantially above the national average. Employment growth for full time workers was 32.2% over the same period, the 7th highest in the UK, with 4,500 jobs created in the city between 2008 and 2010, primarily in construction, accommodation and food services, and professional, scientific and technical activities. The continued prosperity of the city has depended on it staying one step ahead. When Exeter prospers, the wider region certainly benefits as the travel to work area is extensive and well served by a number of key roads and rail routes complemented by the airport, which is well connected to four international hubs.
“Between 1999 and 2009, Exeter’s economy grew at 6.6% per annum, substantially above the national average. Employment growth for full time workers was 32.2%
over the same period, the 7th highest in the UK.”
For a medium sized city, Exeter has one of the lowest rates of unemployment in England and Wales. Throughout the recession, unemployment has risen but remained around 2.6% compared to 3.8% across England and Wales. Shop vacancy rates and mortgage repossession rates also remain well below the national average.
The approach of the mature partnership between the private and public sectors in the city has been about genuine collaboration, pursuing quality not mediocrity and supporting the city’s key assets. Most notable has been the growth and enhanced reputation of the University and the professional and business service sector and the city centre, all critical to the diverse mix which puts the economy in a good position for the next set of developments.
The University of Exeter has recently been invited into the Russell Group, recognising its world class research, academic excellence and unrivalled links with business and the public sector. In an increasingly global higher education market, they attract the very best academics and students from around the world as well as investment from multinational, research intensive businesses. It is high in the world rankings and consistently in the top 10 of various national rankings in the UK.
“Exeter has seen a step change in its economic performance and is well placed to play an even more important role. Strategic developments are being brought forward where possible which have the real potential to deliver large scale and broad based growth.”
The University has nearly completed a £275 million investment programme in its buildings and facilities and is planning a further multi-million pounds range of improvements.
Exeter has seen a step change in its economic performance and is well placed to play an even more important role. Strategic developments are being brought forward where possible, which have the real potential to deliver large scale and broad based growth, making a meaningful and early contribution to rebalancing the economy. As is usual, high upfront costs in terms of critical infrastructure need forward funding so that delivery can happen at an early stage. This approach has had a proven impact in terms of unlocking development and also securing wider sustainability benefits. A new science park and other highly visible and accessible employment sites are in fact virtually ready to go with small additional investment.
“The overall development programme for the city’s economy equates to the creation of some 26,000 jobs over the next 12-15 years across a wide range of employment from high-end science through to distribution and retail.”
Economic growth is also being pursued hand in hand with housing development to ensure successful and sustainable development. A particular aspect of future growth ambitions relates to the low carbon economy. The Cranbrook new community now under construction has the largest low carbon district heating network outside of London. More networks are planned to include servicing large areas of employment space, reducing costs and the carbon footprint. The intention is also to deliver additional benefits to the community through education, training and job creation.
The overall development programme for the city’s economy equates to the creation of some 26,000 jobs over the next 12-15 years across a wide range of employment from high-end science through to distribution and retail. A study undertaken last year concluded that the estimated investment in delivering all developments in the programme equates to more than £3.9 billion. The figure is based on the forecast costs of delivering social, transport and utilities infrastructure combined with estimates of constructing the housing and employment space. In addition, the number of construction jobs supported by this spending is estimated to be 900 over the duration of the programme. The opportunity is there to be realised and could certainly be accelerated.
The soon to be built new Science Park Centre