Serious investment in infrastructure, a growing marine sector of genuine global reputation and even the football team has been promoted – Plymouth is having something of a moment. Profile examines how Britain’s Ocean City is realising its potential.
Few cities have had it good lately. The economic battering that only Brexit and a global pandemic can dish out, coupled with a cost of living crisis that’s very much also a cost of doing business crisis, means few have been able to grow.
And in a city like Plymouth, the outlook in the city’s business community might have been bleak. It’s traditionally a low-wage economy reliant on the sprawling Devonport Naval Base, built on an indomitable community spirit that’s also sadly become known for talking itself down. Faced with such global headwinds, it should be downcast.
And yet there is optimism in the fresh sea air.
Plymouth has bet on marine in recent years, the creation of the UK’s first National Marine Park is one of the indicators of the city-wide commitment to marine and sustainability. It signals a city looking outward from its urban centre to its best natural asset – Plymouth Sound – and embracing it.
“For years Plymouth has been guilty of not talking itself up and being reluctant to shout about its best qualities,” said Stuart Elford, CEO of Devon & Plymouth Chamber.
“But there’s a belief in Britain’s Ocean City that projects like the National Marine Park mark a change in attitude. We’ve created something no one else has got – and arguably nowhere else in the UK could.
“That kind of statement of intent gives a city pride in itself. It gives the wider business community confidence that investment is incoming and that the city has a purpose, a mission. That can only be a good thing.”
The Marine Park’s creation involves bringing together the water’s many users – the Armed Forces, the commercial port, innovating new tech companies and the myriad of leisure uses – and finding a strategy that has a better future for Plymouth at heart.
The work of the Marine Park is far-reaching. it can’t be defined by one single issue, campaign or project. It’s about the conservation of the Sound (with remarkable work by the Ocean Conservation Trust particularly in how we look after our fields of seagrass) hand in hand with developing innovation in marine technology.
And that marine technology is genuinely world-leading. The biggest sign of just how high Plymouth’s stock has risen globally in recent years is the launch of the Mayflower Autonomous Ship, named after the 400th anniversary of the ship’s original sailing from Plymouth to America.
This world-first – an unmanned vessel capable of long-distance navigation – has literally created waves around the world having successfully crossed the Atlantic landing in Plymouth, Massachusetts, last summer. It’s a collaboration between Promare, MSubs and IBM – all organisations choosing Plymouth to develop groundbreaking new marine technology.
Complementing the Marine Park has been the steady rise of the Plymouth and South Devon Freeport. It’s been several years since Plymouth City Council, in partnership with Devon County Council, was successful in its bid for Freeport status for an area that spans both the water, and land around Plymouth Sound and the South Hams.
Freeports offer significant benefits to businesses located within their boundaries. That includes not only customs measures but a range of tax reliefs, enhanced support for trade promotion and innovation. There’s also seed capital to help pay for infrastructure and other enabling activities and complete local retention of business rates revenue from new and expanded developments located in the Freeports.
Plymouth and South Devon describes itself as a dynamic public/private partnership with Plymouth City Council, South Hams District Council and Devon County Council working alongside Princess Yachts, Carlton Power, the Sherford Consortium, and a wider range of stakeholders including the Universities of Plymouth and Exeter, Plymouth port operators, skills providers and the Heart of the South West LEP.
The ambition is to “supercharge the South West economy by building on the region’s unique national capabilities in marine, defence and space to form globally impactful clusters and a UK Innovation Superpower”. It plans to build upon the region’s marine heritage, with a strong business, manufacturing and research community in Plymouth and the Oceansgate innovation centre; a world-class hub for marine industries.
It pledges to “supercharge the South West economy” by
- Attracting new investment and providing supply chain opportunities, embedding a commitment to tackle climate change. Deliver clean growth and marine decarbonisation
- Providing innovation, investment and infrastructure to build a more resilient, sustainable, and productive economy
- Upskilling the local workforce for the high-quality future-proof jobs the Freeport will bring
One example of work already driving innovation is Smart Sound – a fully managed and instrumented testing zone stretching up to 25 miles offshore, available to test and develop technologies for advanced marine autonomy, clean propulsion and digital ocean innovation.
It involves the work of the University of Plymouth, the University of Exeter, Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the Marine Biological Association.
Rob Watson, Director of the Marine Business Technology Centre based at Oceansgate, said: “Smart Sound Plymouth has its roots in the world-class marine research activities undertaken by Devon’s world-class academic and research organisations. All of this activity has created a huge amount of national and international interest, and Smart Sound underpins the Plymouth and South Devon Freeport marine innovation offer.”
Summer 2023 represents a pivotal moment for the Freeport – it’s now assembled a leadership and delivery team to make these pledges a reality, buoyed by already attracting the Freeport’s first tenant Supacat, with a multi-million-pound contract between Devonport-based Babcock and the defence vehicle manufacturer.
Crucial to the vision is attracting the right kind of tenants, like Supacat, to build the kind of high-growth cluster of specialist firms that can power the development of the sector in Plymouth. The significance of the contract win, and the stature of the tenant, has not been lost on the team inside the Freeport.
“This milestone investment marks the transition from a mobilisation phase to a delivery phase and is a tangible example of the impetus we are creating around the Plymouth and South Devon Freeport and our desire to make opportunity become reality,” said Jan Ward, the Freeport’s Chair.
“It demonstrates the partnering and strengthening of the supply chain to win contracts and leverage the Freeport incentives. As one of the first Freeports to get full approval just two months ago, it is great to see such private sector investment in our Freeport so early in the development programme. Indeed, we are confident that more will follow. This is a real boost to South Yard; creating a good number of manufacturing jobs for the people of Devonport and the surrounding area.
“Freeport status is a great accomplishment for the city and the wider South West region as it de-risks private sector investment while the overall economy is uncertain. It initiates, fosters and delivers new investment, jobs and growth – making announcements like today’s possible. We look forward to working with the MoD, Babcock and Supacat.”
The feeling of confidence doesn’t stop at the water. It’s only a couple of years ago that the UK’s biggest cultural opening happened when The Box opened its doors for the first time. This winter the British Art Show visited the city.
Other brave cultural firsts include the breathtaking spectacle of The Hatchling taking flight, while long-established events such as the British Fireworks Championships have been complimented by the likes of Sail GP. The cruise ship sector continues to grow with the arrival of ever-more impressive ships in Plymouth’s stunning natural harbour.
Lest we forget, it’s a little more than 10 years since the creation of the ‘Britain’s Ocean City’ brand and a destination plan with an ambitious vision to match. It’s amazing how quickly the projects along the way – such as the building of Barcode, the restoration of Royal William Yard and the revitalisation of parts of Commercial Wharf in the Barbican – have become part of an improving city life.
And of course, there’s the fairytale of Plymouth Argyle. Nothing energises a city like a football team winning the league. It feels like Plymouth finally being in the Championship has a wider resonance than football.
What Pilgrims’ football promotion means for the wider economy
Plymouth Argyle Football Club‘s return to the Championship will provide a welcome boost for the region’s leisure, hospitality and tourism industry, say business leaders.
The Pilgrims emerged top of the pile in the EFL League One and will now be playing in the second tier of English football next season for the first time in over a decade.
Argyle‘s promotion will increase the profile of Britain’s Ocean City, bringing more people in and putting our region on the map.
Devon & Plymouth Chamber of Commerce CEO, Stuart Elford, said: “It’s not just fantastic news for the club, but of course for the wider economy.
“There will be thousands and thousands more visitors coming down here, spending their money in the leisure, hospitality and tourism industry, which of course has taken a bit of a shock over recent years. But it’s also about civic pride and civic confidence.
“It’s just great for the city, it’s great for the region, and good news for the economy all round.”