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Exeter is predicted to have one of the fastest growing economies in the country this year. Thomas Westcott Partner Patrick Tigwell is based in our Exeter office and is also a board member on the chamber of commerce. Here, he looks at the rise and rise of a unique city…

An engine of growth

There was a time when Exeter was a pretty sleepy city. When I first came here in 1990, the university and the cathedral were the only shows in town and there was a strong reliance on agricultural businesses.

Today, there is so much more going on. The arrival of new industries, such as renewables and the tech sector, industrial and engineering firms, together with a thriving university that now rivals Oxbridge, plus the fact that the Met Office is here, as well as other big organisations and businesses, means Exeter is thriving.

Yes, there are challenges ahead, but this city has certainly got what it takes to be, as I see it, the real engine of growth in Devon and the South West.

Location, location, location

Exeter is a small city in the right place. It’s well connected in terms of the rest of the country, with the M5 providing links to Bristol, the Midlands and the M4 corridor. Rail connections into London are frequent and take just over two hours. Exeter Airport is five miles from the city centre, with daily flights to destinations all over the UK, Europe and beyond.

All of this makes it an attractive destination for new business owners who want to stay connected while enjoying the lifestyle offered by a place that is surrounded by miles of countryside and close to the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site.

The city is well placed for locals, too. It acts as a magnet for commuters from Crediton, mid-Devon, Okehampton, as well as Torbay and East Devon.

Bringing in new industries

The city is developing a reputation as a centre for science and technology, with the development of Exeter Science Park and the Innovation Centre at the University of Exeter. It’s also the headquarters of the Met Office. Not many cities in the UK can boast this kind of skillset at a time when there’s a big move to net zero by 2050.

We are able to bring together some of the world’s most renowned climate change scientists at the University of Exeter and the Met Office to help drive that change forwards. The trick then is to link that to local businesses and work out how to make the most of what we have. We’ve got this tremendous opportunity to attract the brightest minds and keep them right here in the South West.

It’s very exciting that that although we’ll always have sectors, such as leisure and tourism, we’ve also got new industries, such as renewables and tech. If you’re looking ahead 20 or 30 years, these are exactly the kinds of businesses you want. They are the future.

Entrepreneurial spirit

What I’ve noticed in the past few years is the amount of one-man and one-woman-band types of businesses setting up in and around the city. A lot of these entrepreneurs have perhaps made money in London or elsewhere and built up their skills before deciding they want a better quality of life and have chosen to base themselves here (where the broadband is actually pretty good!).

It’s really added to Exeter’s strong sense of entrepreneurship, a feeling backed by many business leaders and organisations here who champion what the city is doing to attract fresh talent and fresh ideas. 

The University of Exeter has its own Business School Centre for Entrepreneurship and there are frequent networking events and courses for start-ups and small businesses. Developments such as The Generator co-working hub on The Quay, add to the sense that the city is a place that wants to develop its entrepreneurial spirit.

The changing face of the high street

I was recently at the opening of St Sidwell’s Point, Exeter’s new state-of-the-art leisure centre. It’s been billed as a major asset for Exeter that will serve the city for many years to come. What I found interesting is that the site has a lovely but small café. The idea is that people can go and have a swim or a weights session and then have refreshments at the other cafes and restaurants in the city centre.

Exeter is really embracing a pattern of behaviour I think we’ll see across all towns and cities in the UK. We’re witnessing this kind of morphing of the high street from retail based to a more all-encompassing leisure experience.

Weathering some storms

Like everywhere, Exeter has been through some tough times and we’re not out of the woods yet. There has been a series of body blows for Exeter-based firms, including the city’s airport which struggled through the pandemic. Add to that the rise of fuel and energy costs, inflation on building materials and supply issues and you’re looking at a bleak landscape.

Here at Thomas Westcott, we know from handling many accounts that a lot of businesses took on a lot of debt during the pandemic and that’s now going to have to be repaid. 

There are some difficulties ahead, of course. But, encouragingly, a lot of our clients are doing really, really well. 

Footfall in the city is back to about 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels (pre-pandemic, the average monthly footfall was 1.36 million visitors a month).

In addition, the airport is flying high again, with the announcement of the arrival of new airlines and destinations.

A real buzz

I wouldn’t say we’re set fair just yet, but things are looking really positive. There’s a great deal of willpower and determination in this city which will carry it through.

The latest UK Powerhouse Report says Exeter will move into the top 10 cities in the country for Gross value added (GVA) growth in 2022. GVA is the measure of the value of goods and services produced in an area, industry or sector of an economy.

The stats have traditionally been in our favour, too.  The city has an estimated population of 128,900 and is in the heart of a travel to work area of more than 470,000 residents. Unemployment is low and well over half the workforce is well qualified, substantially higher than the national average.  

When I step outside my office door in Southernhay, the city has this real buzz about it. We have a strong business community and a sense that we’re all in the right place at the right time. Long may that continue.

By Partner, Patrick Tigwell