The State of Britain

The South East continued to prepare for a Brexit which never came, missed the worst of Storm Gareth and wondered whether there will be enough water to drink in the future.

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Unemployment in the South East fell sharply by 12,000 to 149,000 between November and January; the drop of 0.3% to 3.1% was one of the best in the UK. At 2.9% and 5.2% the SW of England and Yorkshire & Humberside had the lowest and highest unemployment rate in the country respectively. The UK unemployment rate stands at 3.9%.

In March average earnings in the South East dropped slightly to £685 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 East average property prices fell by 0.5% to £321,174 during the month which meant annual growth was an anaemic 0.1%. In comparison UK prices dropped by 0.8% during March which cut the annual growth rate to 1.7%. The South East market was also slower with the latest figures to September 2018 showing volumes down by 3.5%.

Funding for the Port of Ramsgate – which was at the centre of a row over a no-deal-Brexit ferry contract – was axed by Thanet District Council which said it would no longer keep the port ‘ferry-ready’. In December the government gave Seaborne Freight a £13.8m contract to run a service to Ostend, Belgium, to offset delays in the case of a no-deal Brexit, but later the Seaborne contract was cancelled. The Government is now facing legal action from Eurotunnel, which said the contracts awarded to Seaborne and two other ferry companies were handed out in a secretive way. Residents of Kent looked across the Channel at what might come their way as traffic jams built up around Calais as French customs officers worked to rule, carrying out tighter checks on lorries heading for the Channel Tunnel and the ferry port.

In comparison with other parts of the UK the South East got off lightly, but some economic damage was caused by Storm Gareth, for example 60 tonnes of mud and trees hit the track at Wadhurst blocking the line between the East Sussex coast, Kent and London.

Within 25 years the South East of England will not have enough water to meet demand, the head of the Environment Agency warned. Water transfers between regions – from areas of water surplus to areas of deficit – will be needed. The economic case for greater resilience was clear he said, citing a 2016 Environment Agency report that found a severe drought would cost each household more than £100 but that the cost per household of the required investment that would reduce the risk was only £4 a year.

On regional infrastructure, the Government has sought to improve transport and economic development around the Thames Estuary which – despite its proximity to London – has relatively low economic growth and high unemployment. A new Thames Estuary Growth Board will be established and £4.85m has been allocated to develop proposals for improved transport services between Abbey Wood and Ebbsfleet. In Berkshire, £20m of funding earmarked for a Mass Rapid Transit route between Reading and Wokingham will be redeployed elsewhere after plans were scrapped. One new project could be a new £4m bridge in Barkham, Wokingham, to ease congestion, plus a park and ride in the town.

A nuclear fusion project in Oxfordshire has received £92.1m of EU funding, securing its future. The Joint European Torus (Jet) in Culham is home to the world’s largest fusion reactor and has more than 500 staff. Scientists from across the EU use the reactor for experiments on potential carbon-free fusion energy. The Department for Business said the funding guarantees its future until the end of 2020 regardless of Brexit. The EU covers 88% of the running costs but the centre now has enough funding for at least two years.

The University of Surrey has offered voluntary redundancy to all staff as it seeks to make £15m of cuts. Staffing levels will be reduced and £5m could be saved by not filling existing vacancies. A fall in its national league table position has not helped, reflecting the problems faced by many midsized universities which need to maintain investment in order to continue to attract students who now – due to tuition fees – demand more for their money.

Primark plans to move 220 jobs from its head office in Reading to the company’s international headquarters in Dublin. The firm is moving its buying, merchandising, design, quality and sourcing operations to Ireland from September; employees affected by the changes will have the opportunity to work in Dublin. A number of core functions will continue to be based in Reading. TK Maxx will be opening at The Lexicon in Bracknell next month; 40 new jobs will be created.