Exeter: ‘A city where you can live a good life, and also do good business’
One of the UK’s leaders in employment and productivity growth, cultural spending and green initiatives, Exeter tops the table for qualifications and boasts the second lowest unemployment out of 320 cities across Europe.
In the first of a new city spotlight series, BLM asks: What is driving Exeter’s success?
How would you assess Exeter as a place to do business?
Matt Roach, Managing Director of Exeter Airport and Chairman of Exeter Chamber of Commerce, said: “Exeter is the growth hub of the South West. It is a dynamic city, with science and tech, environment, health, big data and education as sectors core to its growth. The city and its wider region, Greater Exeter, is a vibrant centre for small business and entrepreneurialism.
“The creative industries and wider creative economy are at the heart of business and innovation shaping the products and services of the future.”
Phil Bialyk, Leader of Exeter City Council, said: “We’re a very good place to do business and we, as local authority, have a lot of contact with businesses and stakeholders.
“Our attitude is that the answer is yes – now what’s the question? We try to look for reasons to do something. That contributes to a very successful city here in Exeter.”
What are the city’s strengths and weaknesses?
Roach: “Exeter is very well connected, with the airport, two mainline railway stations into London and motorway links. It offers all the lifestyle attributes of the coast, moors and countryside but is only two hours from London.
“This helps the city to attract high-calibre business and individuals looking for their next move and makes Exeter one of the fastest-growing UK cities.”
Bialyk: “It’s not just about producing an industrial estate with a building in it for businesses. Workers want leisure, they want a decent environment, and Exeter has great coastline, great moors, and so it’s about trying to give the people who work in these businesses the right quality of life.
“Businesses want to retain their staff, and wages are very important to retaining staff, of course they are, but quality of life for people with families is important too, so we’re tying to give that all-round package.
“We are reaching out to people to come and look at us, come and invest and work with us, you’ll love what we’re doing.”
Roach: “Alongside people relocating here, as the region’s main employment hub there is a high volume of people commuting into the city each day, both of which bring challenges and opportunities in housing, and congestion. The Liveable Exeter Place Board (which I sit on) is looking to address these challenges through ‘Exeter’s Vision 2040’, which sets out its aim to be recognised as a leading sustainable city and global leader in addressing the social, economic and environmental challenges of climate change and urbanisation.”
Bialyk: “We are a young city. Digital jobs are coming forward – there are more digital jobs in Exeter than in the rest of the South West – and data is an area we are working on. We’re bringing forward developments all the time and working with business.
“One of the key anchors is the university. Very successful. We’ve got Exeter College, which is one of the best colleges in the country and expanding. We’ve also got the Met Office, which brings a lot of skills.
“The South West has a lot more going on than just Doc Martin on ITV – we are a place where you can live a good life, but also do good business.”
What are the main challenges and opportunities of evolving Exeter?
Dewi Hughes, Head of South West & Wales for mid-market investment firm LDC, said: “Exeter faces a unique blend of opportunities and challenges. It has a dynamic, innovative and growing business community, but can sometimes face challenges retaining emerging talent drawn to larger urban areas.
“However, Exeter’s economy continues to grow at pace and attract more businesses, which will help towards retaining and attracting more talent. Its geographic position and concentrated workforce also mean its uniquely placed to trade with the country’s neighbours, no matter what happens with Brexit.”
Roach: “Exeter’s employment area is large with 37,000 people commuting in each day – this brings significant challenges and opportunities.
“Exeter City Council has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030 – a significant but necessary challenge. The Chamber of Commerce is launching an initiative to help businesses reduce their environmental footprint.
“The city’s education providers are key to its future. Exeter College was recently recognised as the top FE College in the country, Exeter Maths School is similarly feted. The University of Exeter is a global leader and its impact on the city is considerable as a business and employer. We have an opportunity to encourage more of its graduates to stay in the city and join the workforce, increasing the pool of talented employees and entrepreneurs.
“The new multi-million pound South West Institute of Technology will revolutionise digital, engineering and manufacturing technology education across the South West, bringing more opportunities for the city and further increasing Exeter’s identity as a centre for education.”
Bialyk: “All of the development brings a problem – traffic. We are an ancient historic city, which we are very proud of, but that means we do not have big dual carriageways as boulevards through the middle. That is a challenge.
“Another of our issues is to retain graduates. Once they leave university they see the bright lights of some of the metropolitan areas, but there’s a lot of business here – we want to be an international centre for digital and climate change, keeping those students in Exeter. That creates the sort of environment where businesses want to relocate.”
What future developments are planned and how will they impact the area?
Hughes: “South West firms’ confidence in their own business prospects remains on the up, according to recent research from Lloyds Bank, and we expect this to improve with greater clarity in the near future.
“Exeter was also recently one of five cities chosen to work with the National Infrastructure Commission to develop strategies to improve transport connections and unlock job opportunities, as well as provide new homes, which will no doubt help to accelerate its growth.”
“It’s certainly a city that’s up-and-coming and has the potential to be one of the UK’s major economic hubs. We are dedicated to supporting ambitious management teams across the South West and are committed to investing £1.2bn nationally over the next three years.”
Bialyk: “We’re hoping to get away a £300m-plus investment to redevelop next to the new bus station and leisure centre we are building to revitalise our city centre. We want community spaces, work spaces and retail, to redefine our centre to make it a destination centre people want to come to. I’ve set up a steering group to bring forward a vision for the next 20 years to develop 12,000 homes in Exeter on eight strategic sites. A new way of urban living – climate-ready, sustainable, proper transport, car-free areas.”
Roach: “The recent response to the UK Industrial Strategy, ‘Greater Exeter: the engine for regional growth’ states the city has the capability to deliver further growth and increased productivity. An aim is for the city to be a world leader on climate change, building on its strengths in environmental science, which we are well placed to do.
“As a relatively small city we have experience in acting as a test bed for solutions in environment and urban planning – and I can see Exeter leading on this on a national, if not global, scale.
“Growth to the east of the city is key to its development. Skypark, Airpark, and Exeter Science Park are now well established. Exeter Science Park expects to be home to 700 employees in the next year with a vision to grow to 3,500 onsite in 15 years.
“A vibrant city centre with the £300m redevelopment of the bus station site underway and further investment through the successful extension of the InExeter BID helping secure the city’s position as a leading retail and leisure destination.”
Bialyk: “In five years, I would hope we would be well on the way to reshaping our city centre to make it a destination. Hopefully we would have a new entertainment venue, be on the way to our project for 12,000 new homes, we’d be moving to a more inclusive society, and transport links would be better, so people’s first choice would be a bus or a train. It’s a big challenge for us, but we are enthused by it.”