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Continued investment helps resilient Exeter economy

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: May 07, 2013

  • John Lewis branch manager Kate Connock and her team celebrate the grand opening of the store in Exeter. It was last year's opening of John Lewis in Exeter that cemented confidence in the city's retail offering and triggered further inward investment PICTURE: MATT AUSTIN

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Everyone agrees that trading conditions have been tough throughout the country during the recession, but Exeter's public and private sector leaders remain relentlessly upbeat about the city's prospects.

In fact, it's hard to get a line on exactly what the impact of the recession has been on the city beyond reduced consumer spend and difficulties for businesses in accessing finance.

Granted Exeter is closer to London than other Westcountry centres and its service-based economy is probably more reflective of growth areas like the South East rather than Plymouth, which retains a blue collar, manufacturing-based economy, or Cornwall or Torbay, where tourism still dominates.

When you consider the billion-pound investment in projects at the Exeter and East Devon Growth Point, £378 million worth of investment by the University of Exeter, the opening of John Lewis and the impending arrival of Ikea, it's hard not to feel that the city has withstood the effects of the downturn remarkably well.

This anecdotal evidence is also borne out by statistics with the ONS website, showing that unemployment in the city has actually fallen during the recession. In 2008, the rate stood at 4.5%, or 2,800 people. In 2012, this had fallen to 2.7%, or 1,700 people.

"We have ridden the recession out very well," said Derek Phillips, vice president of Exeter Chamber of Commerce.

"The surveys that the Chamber has done have shown that cashflow has been difficult for all businesses. Wages have been frozen for many firms and disposable income is down, but new restaurants and hotels have opened so there is disposable income in the city,"

"The airport is down but all airports are down in the UK and it has managed to introduce new routes during the recession, which has been very positive. Surveys that the Chamber has done have shown confidence for the future."

Much of this confidence stems from the huge investment that has gone into the east of Exeter.

A raft of projects that will power growth in the city for years to come are now well advanced.

Work has started on the first building on the Exeter Science Park site, with construction of the second building, the Science Park Centre, due to start this summer.

This will be a key resource in growing Exeter's knowledge economy, in particular by helping to spin out businesses from the city's science base at both its university and the Met Office.

The £210 million Skypark development site, next to Exeter International Airport, aims to provide 1.4m sq ft of office, industrial and manufacturing space. Work has been completed on E.ON's £3 million energy centre, which will service both Skypark and the new town of Cranbrook.

Last month it was announced that plans have been submitted for a 24,165 sq ft facility for the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust.

Homes and community facilities have sprung up apace at Cranbrook, with plans for up to 6,000 new homes at the site by 2026. When finished, the town will be larger than Honiton and, last month, East Devon District Council approved plans for a 1,000-place secondary school and a 420-place primary school, both scheduled to open by September 2015.

Funding for the two new schools comes from a £20 million investment from the Homes and Communities Agency's Local Infrastructure Fund.

Private sector developments at the site, near junction 29 of the M5, include Flybe's Training Academy and Sainsbury's intermodal freight depot, which has the potential to create 700 jobs and will see an investment of up to £50 million.

It's an almost dizzying level of investment that managed to tie up substantial public sector investment before the austerity programme of cuts kicked in.

As Mr Phillips said, this timing has been crucial in Exeter's success story. "We have got tremendous government support. Without that it could have been a very different story."

This, in turn, has meant that infrastructure work such as the junction 29 improvement works could be progressed. This has been a crucial factor in leveraging in private sector investment.

Karime Hassan, Exeter City Council's director of economy and development, said: "Before the recession we were running at about 120 new commercial enquiries, for accommodation or sites, a month. When the economic downturn hit in April 2008 most companies put their relocation plans on hold and our enquiry numbers halved.

"Exeter was hit by the downturn, but not as badly as other cities. We were still receiving 50 to 70 new enquiries a month, whereas other cities in the South West had enquiry numbers drop to almost zero. Since then, enquiry numbers have steadily picked up again and this year we're back to about 120 new enquiries a month.

"The nature of enquiries has changed in the last five years. A lot of the big enquiries were put on hold or were slow to come forward, but this has been replaced by a plethora of small or start-up companies. Maybe it was a sign of the times – with little or no job prospects, many decided to start their own businesses."

Exeter has also fared remarkably well in terms of its retail offering. The Princesshay shopping centre opened in 2007, reinvigorating the city's urban centre and bringing high-end retailers such as Reiss, Carluccio's, Cath Kidston and Karen Millen to the city for the first time.

It was last year's opening of the John Lewis store that cemented confidence in the city's retail offering and triggered further inward investment from brands like Hollisters and Urban Outfitters.

The announcement that Ikea is planning to build a new store on land between the A379 and old Rydon Lane near the Sandy Park rugby stadium is the icing on the cake for the city.

All this has resulted in Exeter having one of the lowest retail vacancy rates in the country. In fact, the rate has increased by just 1.3% during the recession, compared to Truro's rise of 11.1% and Plymouth's increase of 10.5%, according to figures from the Local Data Company.

Exeter is planning on capitalising on this by upgrading other areas of its centre, including the bus station site.

Mr Hassan said: "Confidence in the city's economy was given a significant boost last year with the arrival of John Lewis to the city centre. We have seen the benefits: the high street has attracted new retailers, new cafes and restaurants have opened up and patronage on the rail branch lines to the city have increased, park and ride has also increased. Dwell time and shopping hours have increased. However, it is clear to us that there are significant challenges ahead for the high street. Nationally experts are struggling to understand what the internet means for the future of the high street. John Lewis has responded in Exeter with a retail model that embraces the internet with 'click and collect' Others will follow."

Investment in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum paid off when the attraction won the Museum of the Year title last year, giving the city added appeal to visitors and a feel-good factor for residents.

This will be increased by this week's news that Sandy Park will play host to Rugby World Cup matches in 2015.

Mr Hassan added: "In 2011 day visitors exceeded two million for the first time. Shopping and food and drink are the two most popular reasons for visiting the city, this is primarily down to the investment in this sector. We will probably see an increase for 2012 figures due to the investment in RAMM and the cathedral. And we now have the Rugby World Cup coming to the city in 2015."

With all of this investment and developments, what, then, has been the cost of the recession?

"Exeter undoubtedly would have grown faster without the recession but it has still managed to grow," said Tim Walker, head of financial planning firm Brewin Dolphin's Exeter office.

The impact seems to have been mainly borne by individuals and small businesses, with the former seeing less money in their pockets and the latter finding it more difficult to secure investment.

Certainly there have been some big name casualties, particularly when the construction industry fell off a cliff at the start of the recession.

Building firm Rok and social housing provider Connaught had both grown rapidly in recent years, but they collapsed rapidly when the recession began to bite.

Although they were national players, they employed hundreds of people in Exeter itself.

More recently, Flybe, the city's biggest private-sector employer, has seen its share price drop, announcing in January that it was cutting 300 UK jobs in a bid to reduce costs by £35 million.

Around 100 roles in Exeter are under consultation, with the company saying that the move is part of a restructure aimed at turning the business around after the recessionary combination of rising costs and falling consumer spend reduced its margins.

Public sector job losses have been less than were originally thought, although roles have been cut at both the city and county councils.

"The biggest employer is pseudo public sector in the university. They have not cut their expenditure, nor has the Met Office. Nor, I think, has the hospital, and the Medical School has expanded," said the Chamber's Derek Phillips.

"Our public sector losses have only been in the county and city councils. There have been job losses there but these have been absorbed by other areas."

"This sense of confidence in the Exeter economy does not mean we do not have challenges; times are tough for businesses and residents and we believe growth must continue to be the focus of our attention with there being no room for complacency," added Karime Hassan.

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