The State of Britain

The South West records the lowest unemployment rate in the UK again but households see poor growth in their disposable incomes, and taxpayers’ hope Cosmic Girl disappears into space with their money

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Unemployment in the South West decreased by 6,000 to 78,000 between February and April, a drop of 0.2% to 2.7%. This is the lowest rate in the UK; at 5.7% the North East had the highest. The UK unemployment rate stands at 3.8%.

South West average property prices fell by 0.1% to £253,410 during the month which meant annually prices grew by 1.3%. In comparison, UK prices increased by 0.7% to £228,903 during April which held the annual growth rate at 1.4%.

According to the latest figures from the ONS, the South West had the smallest increase in disposable household incomes between 2016 and 2017. The tiny uplift of 0.1% was beaten by all the other regions of the UK except Yorkshire, where incomes fell by 0.2%, household incomes in London grew by 2.2%. Nottingham has been named the UK’s poorest city, narrowly beating Leicester by £115 per household. Nottingham had the UK’s lowest gross disposable household income (wages or benefits) of £12,445. The UK average is £19,514 per household with London borough Kensington and Chelsea recording household income over £60,000 and a growth rate of 4.9% from the previous year. The South West had a gross disposable household income in the UK of £18,984.

On jobs, Insurer Aviva, has said it will cut 1,800 jobs worldwide over the next three years in order to reduce costs. Aviva has 16,000 employees in the UK and a major UK office in Stoke Gifford, Bristol. Also a Port Talbot construction company with offices in Bristol and the south-west of England has gone into administration – Jistcourt employed about 50 staff.

On interventions, £7.1m of government funding was awarded to four adjacent councils (Bristol City Council, Bath and North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset) aimed at increasing the uptake of electric vehicles. The new funding will add more than 120 new charging points which are being installed over the next year.

The government’s industrial strategy has resulted in investment in The University of Exeter which has been awarded £6m towards the expansion of its diabetes research centre. Diabetes research in Exeter began in 1987 and the centre is now highly regarded.

An upgrade of 1950s Bristol concert venue Colston Hall has been delayed until 2021. The venue closed last year as part of a £49m plan to redesign its interior over two years and was due to reopen in 2020. The additional cost of £3.4m has been picked up by the West of England Combined Authority.

The government and Cornwall Council are prepared to invest up to £20m into Newquay airport (Spaceport Cornwall) to make it a base for Virgin Orbit. The funding would comprise up to £12m from the council and up to £7.85m from the UK Space Agency. There would also be contributions of £0.5m from the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly LEP with Virgin Orbit investing £2.5m. Orbit is the satellite launch system being developed in the US by Sir Richard Branson which will despatch rockets to space from under the wing of a converted Virgin Atlantic jumbo jet. The public money is dependent on Spaceport Cornwall and Virgin Orbit putting together the business case. The jet, called Cosmic Girl, could be operating out of Newquay in the early 2020s if all goes smoothly.

The South West will also benefit from public funding from Historic England which will regenerate Swindon’s Railway Village in a heritage project. The area has been designated as a Heritage Action Zone by Historic England which will jointly invest £7.6m with Swindon Borough Council. The Railway Village was built by Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel for railwaymen in the 1840s. Refurbishing the Grade II listed former pub the Cricketers’ and saving a former rail building the Mechanics Institute which has been derelict since 1986 are also part of the proposals.

On the roads, the last stretch of single carriageway on the A417 east of Gloucester, between Brockworth and Cowley, will see a new section of road through Shab Hill. The new 3.4 mile road will have a speed limit of 70mph and cost £435m. The A417 is used by motorists as a shortcut between the M4 and the M5. Radio 2 traffic news favourite the Air Balloon roundabout near Birdlip will be removed and the Air Balloon pub will be demolished. Highways England hopes to start construction in late 2021 subject to planning and funding.

A few miles to the North West, the A40 from Cheltenham to the M5 will be upgraded. The £22m project is designed to ease congestion prior to the development of a £650m cyber business park on the western edge of the town. Further plans, including adding extra lanes past GCHQ and improving cycling and pedestrian access from Cheltenham Spa railway station, will be revealed later this year. Work on the road scheme is expected to start in autumn 2019 and be completed by autumn 2021.

A proposed new town in Cornwall on the outskirts of Truro has planning permission for thousands of new homes as well as schools, supermarkets and a new stadium. Now the government has agreed to invest £47m to assist road access to it. The Stadium for Cornwall, however, – which will be home to the Cornish Pirates and Truro City FC – is still awaiting an announcement from the government on whether it will match Cornwall Council’s £3m funding for the project.