The State of Britain

SW unemployment the lowest in the UK, the abolition of tolls increases economic activity around the Severn and the road to nowhere likely to be completed after 40 years

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Unemployment in the South West edged up by 2,000 to 84,000 between November and January; not enough to move the rate from 2.9% – the best in the UK. At 5.2% Yorkshire and the Humber had the highest. The UK unemployment rate stands at 3.9%.

In March average earnings in the South West increased to £585 per week. London had the highest average earnings of £846 whereas the North East had the lowest of £523. In the UK average earnings grew by 3.4% or by 1.5% after inflation.

South West average property prices fell by 1.4% to £253,926 during the month which trimmed the annual growth rate to 0.5%. In comparison UK prices dropped by 0.8% during March which cut the annual growth rate to 1.7%. The South West market was also slower with the latest figures to September 2018 showing volumes down by 3%.

At 2.9% the region saw the lowest unemployment in the UK but the closure of Honda’s Swindon plant coupled with jobs losses in the Cornish food processing industry cast a shadow over this achievement.

It was fitting that 50 years after the technologically advanced Bristol built Concorde first made its test flight, the city should welcome modern innovation with the announcement that Channel 4 is likely to locate its new Creative Hub at Finzels Reach on Bristol’s new waterfront quarter. The firm will lease 3,200 sq ft of space on the second floor of the Fermentation Buildings. There was less positive news from Cornwall where it was confirmed Samworth Brothers owned Kensey Foods in Launceston – which makes premium deserts – will close in July; 650 jobs at the site will go. Cornish food processing company St Merryn Meats – which makes chilled meat products such as burgers – is also under the threat of closure, with the potential loss of 173 jobs. Axminster’s largest town centre shop – Trinity House – is to close with the loss of 19 jobs. The department store is expected to cease trading in September. Better news for Bracknell town centre, a further £30m will be spent on the next stage of regeneration. Bracknell Forest Council’s announcement follows the completion of the £240m Lexicon centre and will include redeveloping the old Bentalls site into a covered space which will be linked to a remodelled Princess Square.

On regional economic development, Visit Cornwall expects continued expansion in the tourist sector, growing the economy by £521m and creating up to 8,000 jobs; it noted demand from the US market was particularly strong with enhanced interest also from Australia – the Poldark effect. The agency says Cornwall has about 4.5 million visitors a year generating £1.5bn. The 2020 Tour of Britain will begin with a 105-mile first stage in Cornwall. The UK’s flagship professional cycle race will see 120 riders start in Penzance and finish in Bodmin with organisers hoping for 180,000 spectators adding more than £3m to the local economy.

A key regional infrastructure project will likely get underway this summer when work begins on a £100m flood defence project along the Severn estuary. Reinforced concrete sea walls up to 2.4 metres high and raised earth embankments will be built along the coast from Avonmouth to Severnside. The debate over the trade off between toll charges and economic activity continues after figures from Highways England showed use of the M4 Severn crossing into Wales had increased 10% since tolls were abolished on 17 December. The figures showed 32,420 vehicles used the crossing every day in January and 35,457 in February compared with 28,897 and 31,866 for the same period in 2018. Toll charges were cars £5.60 and HGVs £16.70; the eastbound crossing was free. The charges were first levied on opening in 1966. HMG forecasts suggest that by 2022 more than 24m vehicles pa would use the crossings westbound, compared with 18m if the tolls had stayed in place.

Other infrastructure projects that moved forward this month include plans for two bypasses north of Bristol. The West of England Combined Authority (‘Weca’) has approved £200,000 to fund a feasibility study on linking Coalpit Heath with Westerleigh and Frampton Cotterell with Winterbourne. The Coalpit Heath to Westerleigh study would include ‘the road to nowhere’ in Yate, an unfinished stretch of dual carriageway which was abandoned after partial completion in the 1970s and is now only used as a film location. In Somerset, Watchet won £5m from HMG’s Coastal Communities Fund to upgrade the harbour; an art gallery, workshops, restaurant and marina facilities will be developed.

Regional transport developments included a new four times daily service from Newquay Airport to Heathrow. Flybe will use 78-seater turboprop planes and will received a £3.4m subsidy or about £5 per passenger over the four year deal; it is the only taxpayer subsidised route into Heathrow. On rail, talks on expanding the MetroWest line 30 miles beyond Yate to Gloucester continue. The MetroWest project aims to improve suburban train services into Bristol. The railway project will see the reopening of the Portishead line to passenger trains. In February, North Somerset Council allocated £15m to the Portishead-line section of the project and approved £11.7m over two years to develop a full business case leaving a £31m shortfall. The MetroWest railway expansion plans also include building new railway stations in Henbury, North Filton and Ashley Down. Weca has also approved £300,000 to conduct a feasibility study into reopening Charfield station. On the seas, the first of 20 new weekly cross-Channel ferry crossings has begun as part of a £46.6m taxpayer-funded no-deal Brexit contract; the delay to Brexit was too late for Brittany Ferries to cancel the sailings. The new crossings are from Brittany Ferries’ Portsmouth-Le Harve, Poole-Cherbourg and Plymouth-Roscoff routes.

Two new unitary authorities have begun operating in Dorset after nine previous councils were merged. Dorset Council and Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole (BCP) Council said 450 jobs would be lost and £108m would be saved over six years. Also the former Dorset County, East Dorset, North Dorset, Purbeck, Weymouth & Portland and West Dorset councils will form the new Dorset Council. The anticipated operating efficiencies appear achievable, in the ten years since Cornwall switched to a unitary authority – replacing one county council and six district and borough councils – actual savings have been underestimated.