Doing business in the South West

Bristol law school

Between 1998 and 2008, the South West region's below-average economic performance rose to one that's now above the UK average (excluding London).


The regional stereotype of the South West is one of Fawlty Towers holidays, windy beaches, lashings of scrumpy, Cornish pasties and wild beasts of the moors. But those who work in the region are understandably keen to refute this stereotype. So what does the region have to offer in terms of its industries, employment and economy?

The South West has played a significant role in the UK economy over the years. Bristol was the primary port in the British Empire from the 17th to the early 20th century, although it arguably shared this honour with Liverpool from the early 1800s. The city nevertheless remained one of the British Empire's centres for trade in everything from tobacco and slaves to cotton and silk. Until the early 1800s it ignominious distinction of being the UK's premier port for the slave trade.

Elsewhere in the West, Devon and Cornwall were historically significant centres for the mining of gold and tin. Mining first started in the region over 4,000 years ago, and the region traded with everywhere in the known world throughout the Bronze Age, Roman period and the Middle Ages.

The mining of metals fell into decline in the 19th century, and the last Cornish tin mine closed in 1998. Another mining industry remains of significance, however: china clay. Used to make porcelain, this mineral was first discovered in the region in the mid-18th century. By 1910 Cornwall was producing half of the world's china clay. The industry's monopoly producer, English China Clay, was bought by French industrial minerals firm Imerys for £756 million in 1999. But employment in the industry has stagnated; these days around 1,000 people work directly with china clay, down significantly from the 6,000 who did in 1974,. The county still has huge china clay reserves though, and in 2012 Imrys opened the first new china clay pit for nearly 30 years.

Until the late 1990s, Cornwall was relatively depressed economically and was one of the poorest areas in Britain. Since then, however, major investments like the Eden Project (opened in a former china clay pit) have improved the region's fortunes, although it is still not as wealthy as Bristol, Gloucestershire or Wiltshire.

In 2015 the South West contributed £126.07 billion to the UK economy (see table 1), around 7.6% of the total that year. Between 1998 and 2008, the region's below-average economic performance rose to one that's now above the UK average (excluding London). About one in five people in the South West are employed in the public sector, and the region's unemployment rate in the second quarter of 2017 was 3.5%, lower than the national average of 4.4%.

Breaking the region's economy down by sector shows the prominence of tourism, with distribution, transport, accommodation and food being the second largest contributor to GVA (gross value added, the regional equivalent of GDP) behind public services, according to the Office of National Statistics. The real estate industry comes in third. During the recession, the region's tourist industry received a shot in the arm as recession-hit Britons opted for 'staycations' instead of more costly foreign jaunts. This proved a bit of a double-edged sword as the economy bounced back, with tourism dropping as people start to go abroad again.

But one recent improvement has been Cornwall's ability to endure the seasonal shifts which dictate the success of its tourism industry: previously unemployment would spike during the winter months as bar staff and hotel cleaners were made redundant. However, recent years have seen far stronger employment rates carrying on through the winter as the gap between tourist spending in the hot and cold months of the year has narrowed.

But the South West has far more going for it than just tourism. For instance, some high-tech industries have a foothold in the region: a number of large aerospace companies are based all over (including Rolls Royce and Airbus) and Bristol is home to a new generation of small tech start-ups. Fishing – a more traditional industry – retains its importance in the region, though much of that's symbolic. One need only look to the sector's prominence in the EU referendum campaign to see this in action: Cornish fishermen in particular were painted as the victims of meddling Eurocrats and their Common Fisheries Policy (remember Nigel Farage's Thames flotilla?).

Brexit's impact goes beyond the number of fish brought ashore. Cornwall has received EU subsidies of £60 million each year for the past ten years due to its poorly performing economy, and it was set to benefit from a total amount of £2.5 billion of EU funding before 2020 had the referendum outcome not thrown a spanner in the works. And even though the county voted to leave the EU by a margin of 56.5% to 43.5% on 23 June, following the vote Cornwall Council issued an appeal to the UK government asking it to guarantee that funding will be matched once ties to the EU are severed. Chancellor Phillip Hammond did announce in August 2016 that EU funding would be matched on projects signed before the autumn statement, but in July 2017 the Local Government Association called for more certainty that regeneration projects will not lose out following the UK’s exit from the EU in 2019. Uncertainty still abounds about the future.