The State of Britain

A branch line reopening, tower blocks in Bristol, South West lidos and lithium mining in Cornwall

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Unemployment in the SW fell by 12,000 to 76,000 between December and February; a cut of 0.4% to 2.6% meant the region retained the lowest unemployment rate in the country – the NE of England had the highest at 5.6%. The national unemployment rate stands at 3.9% and UK average earnings grew by 3.5% or by 1.6% after inflation.

SW average property prices fell by 0.4% to £253,730 during the month which trimmed the annual growth rate to 1.2%. In comparison, UK prices dropped by 0.8% to £226,234 during April which cut the annual growth rate to 0.6%.

A plethora of regional tourism projects this month. The Tate St Ives gallery had more than 300,000 visitors in 2018 – the highest number since opening – after the launch of its expanded galleries doubled the space for displaying art. In contrast, visitor numbers at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth failed to hit a target of 400,000 visitors in 2018, instead chalking up c280,000. The UK’s largest aquarium has posted operating deficits in recent years, but the charity hopes cooler summer weather will see numbers increase this year and that 320,000 can be achieved by 2022.

A £1.5m project to warm Penzance’s Art Deco lido using geothermal energy – the UK’s first – will require heat pumps after engineers found that drilling further down risked collapsing a well. Disappointment at Weston-super-Mare’s former lido, as a project to create a 1,000-capacity indoor arena and a 9,000-capacity outdoor space failed to win £1.1m of funding from the Government’s Coastal Communities Fund.

On infrastructure, a new £30m sea wall at Dawlish is recommended for approval. Storms in 2014 left the railway track suspended in mid-air so Network Rail will raise the wall to 7.5m. The Environment Agency has reduced the tidal flood risk to c600 properties in Starcross as part of a £5m project. The new coastal defences include four new flood gates, slipway improvements and nearly 600 metres of raised and refurbished flood walls. In Cornwall, the 2014 storms damaged the tidal gate which protects Polperro harbour; the Environment Agency will now invest £2m in an improvement.

In Devon, £30m of transport projects have been approved, including a new railway station and the North Devon Link Road improvement. Marsh Barton railway station is a proposed station near Exeter on the Riviera Line between Exeter St Thomas and Starcross stations. Also, funding from the government’s National Productivity Investment Fund – aimed at improving economic infrastructure which will in turn enhance productivity – has been earmarked for the next phase of a cycle route across Exeter. The c£1.5m project will help link housing developments in the east of Exeter to the city centre and Exeter University with the balance of the cost being picked up by developers.

On transport, the reopening of the Portishead branch line which was closed to passenger services in 1964 has moved forward after the project was promised £31m in government funding. The project will be funded from the Local Growth Fund, Economic Development Fund, North Somerset Council and the Department for Transport. The work required in the Avon Gorge to enable the line speeds needed for a half-hourly service has meant the original £50m estimate has increased to £116m.

In the air, Ryanair has launched new twice-weekly winter flights between Exeter and Alicante shortly after Flybe confirmed its route would cease. Ryanair recently launched three new routes from Exeter to Malta, Malaga and Naples – its first ever flights from the airport. Exeter is now forecasting 1m+ travellers for the first time since 2007. To cater for the extra demand, the airport is investing £1m in new passenger handling facilities.

Some notable development projects in and around Bristol this month. A derelict former Royal Mail sorting office and adjoining 1970s office building will be demolished to make way for a new £300m campus for the University of Bristol. Land adjacent to Temple Meads railway station could accommodate c1,000 student bedrooms in three blocks that could be 21-storeys high. The University also plans to build a 24-hour student hub along with shops, bars and cafes, a roof terrace, gym, and outside spaces for fitness and studying. Elsewhere in the city, two nine-storey tower blocks at an old brewery site at Ashton Gate which will create 94 homes, offices and restaurants, have also been approved. At Mud Dock, the Thekla, one of Bristol’s longest running music venues will be taken into dry dock for a £1m overhaul which should last until September.

In Devon, Hatherleigh market buildings will be demolished, with 102 new homes, a new market square, an auction facility, a pavilion, commercial units, and car parking facilities built on the site as part of a £20m development.

Bristol City Council’s 1970s style intervention in the energy markets has so far cost £27m of public money. In its most recent accounts, Bristol Energy has lost c£20m over the last two years. According to its website, Bristol Energy offers gas and electricity for domestic and business customers across Bristol, the South West and nationwide.

The value of tin has increased by c60% since 2016 and is sparking interest in restarting mines across the South West of England. Canadian mining firm Strongbow is looking to invest c£100m in South Crofty mine near Redruth and in east Cornwall, Cornwall Resources has been test drilling for tin and tungsten at Redmoor mine in Kelly Bray. As well as the need for more tin, an increase in electric vehicles is driving up demand for lithium, which Australian firm, Métampère, is hoping to mine in Cornwall. There is currently no production of Lithium in Europe, so Cornwall could become the first European hub for lithium mining – if it’s found.