The State of Britain

The South West retains the lowest unemployment rate in the UK, the West of England local industrial strategy published and the ‘Great Western Powerhouse’ mooted

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Unemployment in the South West of England was unchanged at 76,000 between March and May. At 2.6% the region had the lowest rate in the UK and at 5.6% the North East had the highest rate. The national unemployment rate stands at 3.8%.

The South West of England’s average property price increased by 1.2% to £257,563 during the month which uplifted the annual growth rate to 2.7%. In comparison, UK prices increased by 0.1% to £229,431 during May which reduced the annual growth rate to 1.2%.

The West of England has become one of the first regions to agree a local industrial strategy with the government. The 78 page document was developed by the West of England Combined authority/LEP in collaboration with businesses and was signed off by Business Secretary, Greg Clark.

The strategy includes; a new Global Centre of Innovation Excellence, developing new products and services through a new West of England Network of Living Labs, including more regional providers in businesses’ supply chains, incentivising companies towards low carbon business models and investing in infrastructure that reduces energy demand. The plan also envisages supporting businesses to adopt new clean technology and energy efficiency measures plus building new carbon-neutral homes.

In another report, this one smaller at 49 pages, a cross-border economic collaboration between south-east Wales and the west of England has been envisaged. Commissioned by Cardiff, Newport and Bristol councils the report into a ‘Great Western Powerhouse’ could boost industry and improve transport links and aims to enhance the region’s profile. Echoing The Northern Powerhouse strategy, the Great Western Powerhouse report reflects the trend towards greater regional devolution and the emergence of regional powerhouses in the UK. The report suggests a M4 powerhouse stretching from Swansea in the west to Swindon and Bath in the east, and as far north as Tewkesbury. There are already three established city regions and plans but no overarching powerhouse concept for the region. The report argues that the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine ‘brands’ have been successful at attracting significant levels of government funding and investment. The cyber security, aerospace and creative industries are examples of complementary strengths. The report calls for the UK and Welsh governments to help set up a cross-border organisation to co-ordinate the initiative.

In its review this month of the 38 Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) – the private sector-led partnerships between businesses and local public sector bodies that support local economic growth – the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons found that from 2015-16 to date; £9.1bn of taxpayers’ money has been awarded to LEPs through three tranches of Growth Deals. The East of England, with three LEPs, has received the least with £703m, London, with one LEP, has received £435m and the north of England, with 11 LEPs, has received most of the funding at £3.4bn (38%).

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government considers the population of an area as well as the strength of the LEP’s strategic economic plans and projects when deciding Growth Deal allocations. There are no overlapping LEP areas in the South West which means these LEPs will be able to bid for funds from the Government’s proposed Shared Prosperity Fund, which will replace EU structural funding after Brexit.

The West of England LEP has received £284m, the 12th highest in England since 2015, Heart of the South West £239m, Swindon and Wiltshire £169m, GFirst £107m, Dorset £98m and Cornwall and Isles of Scilly has received £78m. The Ministry does not evaluate the Local Growth Fund which means it has no understanding of what impact spending through LEPs has on local economic growth. The latest growth figures for the region from ESCoE showed growth at 2.1% which compared with the UK average of 1.5%.

The 24 Enterprise Zones designated in England in 2011 to improve economic growth had created 17,307 jobs by 2017 instead of the forecast 54,000 jobs by 2015. BBC-commissioned research conducted by think tank charity, Centre for Cities, also found that in two areas the number of jobs had fallen. Enterprise zones offered cheaper business rates, superfast broadband and lower levels of planning control. According to the research 5,493 jobs were created in the Bristol Temple Quarter and Bath Zone, the best performing zone in England, and 136 jobs in the Cornwall Newquay Aerohub Enterprise Zone which was less successful.

The cost of the scheme is disputed, with The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government claiming £101m, £215m less than the BBC’s estimate of £316m+. The Ministry also disputes the methodology used in the research. A further 24 Zones were created in 2016 and 2017.

On jobs, Travelodge wants to open seven hotels in Cornwall as part of its £165m expansion plan which could create about 175 new jobs. The sites include Bude, Falmouth, Fowey, Newquay, Penzance, St Ives and Truro. Also Plymouth crisp company, Burts Chips, is expanding its operation in the south west, safeguarding more than 200 jobs. The firm’s upgrade of its plants at Roborough and Leicester will enable it to triple production capacity. In north Devon, a deal to build an international fishing fleet could mean 120 new jobs at the Appledore shipyard which closed in March. But Warrens Bakery, which describes itself as the oldest Cornish Pasty producer in the world, said 66 jobs within production and distribution are at risk as part of a restructuring. The firm employs around 570.