‘The place to invest’: Plymouth as a business destination

With along and storied history in maritime, Plymouth’s location on the South West coast has made it a beacon for relatable companies for centuries. But, how is it adapting to the modern business world? What challenges is it facing? And what sectors are most prevalent?

Business Leader Magazine investigates.


Stuart Elford – Chief Executive of Devon & Plymouth Chamber

Ben Rhodes – CBI South West Deputy Director

What are the strengths of Plymouth from a business perspective?

Rhodes: “The city of Plymouth has a proud maritime history, and remains, to this day, a thriving port city and a gateway to Europe, blending new developments with old and forging a vibrant future. The way the private sector works collaboratively with a dynamic economic development team at the city council has led to several high-profile developments in recent years, helping to breathe fresh life into somewhat forgotten areas of the city.”

Elford: “Plymouth has a great combination of cost-effective property and talented human resources with an amazing quality of life and great digital connectivity. It is a city that is realising its potential and has been recently described in the national media as ‘the coolest little city by the sea’ and ‘the place to invest’.”

What are its weaknesses?

Rhodes: “Plymouth, due to its unique location – nestled between the ocean and Dartmoor, halfway down the South West peninsula – can prove challenging to get to. Despite adequate road and rail links, the city has struggled to attract and hang on to the best companies and, subsequently, the best people. This is, however, beginning to change, as more and more people begin to realise they can now have a better quality of life living in and around Plymouth, while working for the best firms, wherever they are, nationally or internationally.”

Elford: “Previously a garrison and then dockyard town, it has been slow to realise its potential, but that is changing fast. Relatively speaking, the road, rail and air infrastructure to the city could be improved, but this is changing and the city itself has great transport infrastructure.”

How would you describe its relationship with other nearby business destinations, towns and cities?

Rhodes: “Plymouth is the South West’s second largest city, and continues to play a key role in the regional economy by working collaboratively with neighbouring towns and cities. This is demonstrated through a firm commitment to regional initiatives, such as the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership and the Great South West powerhouse, a pioneering region that provides an unrivalled opportunity to create world-leading growth in the green and blue economies, by focusing on a future that is smart, connected and clean.”

Elford: “Devon and Cornwall are big counties surrounded by the sea, so distance to travel between major conurbations has been seen by some as an issue. But not only are people realising in the post-COVID-19 world that this is largely circumvented by digital communications and also that by being more sparsely populated, travel times are actually quicker per mile than most other parts of the country.”

What challenges has the city faced recently and how has/will it overcome them?

Rhodes: “2020 was destined to be a celebratory year, with ‘Mayflower 2020’ plans set to bring much-needed attention and funding to the city. The coronavirus pandemic, however, has halted too much of that activity, which has been a hammer blow for the city and region. What matters now is how city and much of the South West emerges from this crisis, and how the government will support areas like this within its levelling-up agenda.

“Looking ahead, the Great South West aspires to boost the regional economy by £45bn over the next 15 years, and Plymouth will want to be at the vanguard of that effort.”

Elford: “COVID-19 is obviously a challenge, but that could be said of any city. However, Plymouth is less densely populated and has, thankfully, had very low infection rates. Plymouth has a strong manufacturing base that is making it very resilient to Brexit uncertainty, although clarity of future trading arrangements would help all businesses.

“As a port that has been the start of journeys all over the world, our links around the globe are strong, and we will find new trading partners.”

What sectors are most prevalent within Plymouth? Why?

Rhodes: “Plymouth is recognised for its strength in marine industries, advanced manufacturing and defence, and its location and supply chains mean there are opportunities for further growth in these sectors.

“The city punches above its weight in digital, scientific research and health sectors too, and Plymouth Science Park – a joint venture between the University of Plymouth and Plymouth City Council – is the largest science and technology centre in the region and home to more than 100 businesses.

“Plymouth also benefits from a substantial tourism economy; annual visitor numbers top five million and support 7,500 jobs.

Elford: “There are massive investments in the cultural offering in the city (a new cultural, arts and archive space known as ‘The Box’ has been described by Arts Council England as the most exciting project in the UK in a decade).

“This complements the world-class theatre we have, and it has been proven that cities with a vibrant cultural scene do well economically. The city has recently won significant funding to improve its transport infrastructure further, and this makes Plymouth a very attractive place to do business.”

What future developments are planned and how will they impact the area?

Rhodes: “One of the most exciting developments in Plymouth’s recent history has been Oceansgate. This important industry cluster, which is aligned to world-leading universities and research centres, is attracting a highly-skilled workforce, and is a great example of public-private collaboration. Some well-known companies, such as Princess Yachts, Babcock and Valeport, have all chosen to locate operations on the site.

“Oceansgate is the first marine Enterprise Zone in the country, which means that tenants receive significant tax breaks and government support, helping Plymouth further capitalise upon its strength and talent in this area.”

Elford: “The marine sector is significant for obvious reasons, but it is leading the world in the development of autonomous shipping and marine sciences too. There is a huge cluster of medical science and supporting businesses, as well as a very strong manufacturing base. Much of this is either for geographic reasons or because of the legacy from being a major naval port.

“This is an exciting time to live and work in Plymouth, and the next few years will see the city truly come into its own.”