Swindon & Wiltshire Business News

Influential report puts Swindon in a positive light

 

Swindon's economy has been painted in a positive light by the influential Centre for Cities report, business leaders in the town heard this week.

The report is published at the end of January every year, and is eagerly anticipated by local authorities and those charged with improving their local economies.

At the Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce business breakfast on Thursday (February 6) Chris Parsons, economic development officer at Swindon Borough Council, presented some of the key statistics.

Perhaps the best was on productivity – the town's economic output per worker was third in the UK, behind only Slough and London.

It also had the 16th highest population growth rate in the UK – that's out of more than 60 cities and large towns on which the report focusses.

And it has a high concentration of UK and European business HQs, the eighth lowest unemployment rate in the UK, and – following a dip in 2018 – the 16th highest growth in average weekly wages, which now stands at £528.

"For a town of our size we massively punch above our weight," said Chris.

One of the big opportunities for Swindon is the growth of the digital sector. Businesses and organisations in the town have an average turnover of £300,000 per year – well above the UK average of £99,000. In part, that's due to the number of large organisations that are investing heavily in digital, even if the sector is not their raison d'être.

The National Trust, Chris told networkers, employees 250 people working on the charity's digital presence alone.

And delegates were reminded that digital becomes a major focus for Swindon in 2020, with the TechSwindon summit now confirmed for November 5 – a date to remember.

Meanwhile, Paddy Bradley of the Swindon and Wiltshire Local Enterprise Partnership was on-hand to give an update on the publication of the highly-anticipated Local Industrial Strategy.

More than 30 such reports are being prepared around the UK. Back in October, SWLEP was at an advanced stage – there was talk of it being the first in the country to receive government approval.

But a snap general election and changes in government means progress has stalled in the Capital. A final draft is now expected to be presented to the SWLEP board in March.

Unlike Swindon, Wiltshire has a productivity problem. "It's lower than the national average, and hard to get up," said Paddy.

Reasons are varied: they include the relatively low skills base of the rural areas, and the lack of a university to drive R&D via spin-out companies – something that helps neighbouring rural counties like Oxfordshire.

Physical connectivity is also an issue, especially north to south which is, said Paddy, "dire".

There are a host of opportunities though: around Swindon, the Honda site could offer a boon for high-value manufacturing jobs – "It's the best development site between London and Wales," said Paddy – although it is in the hands of Honda when and how the site is disposed of.

Paddy said SWLEP had been asking Honda to market its factory as a multiple-occupancy site, therefore reducing the potential impact should new occupiers leave.

Meanwhile, the former airfield at Wroughton has been highlighted as a potential site for the testing of autonomous vehicles.

In another corner of the county, digital technology provides endless opportunities. The military's focus on cyber security is based in Corsham, and SWLEP has ambitions to create the UK's leading cybersecurity cluster around the base, with private companies spinning out of, or feeding into, the military creating hundreds of well-paid jobs.

The town has access to gigabit connectivity, thanks to the military presence, while office space is affordable and readily available.

And near Salisbury, a similar cluster could be built in life sciences around the Porton-based Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. Although DSTL is 'behind the wire' the publicly-funded Porton Science Park opened in 2018 and just last month it was announced that a new innovation centre will be built after £5m of funding was secured.