Torbay’s new story: A fresh era in the English Riviera

Torbay & South Devon is embracing sectors old and new as it ushers in a new era of investment and opportunity. Profile found out more in a special feature on the region.

The people of the glistening coastal towns of Torbay and South Devon and the glorious green expanse that rolls beyond them are in no doubt about what stunning natural assets they are lucky enough to live and work in.

It’s an image that’s inspired holidaymakers to travel to this beautiful part of the world for generations.

But while tourism and hospitality continues to drive the economy, the area is embracing opportunities from other sectors and leveraging inward investment that promises to drive Torbay into a new era of prosperity – with remarkable opportunities for business.

Some 25,000 work in hospitality here – the core sector that generates a cool half a billion for the local economy every year.

But the average tourist or hospitality worker probably isn’t aware that just a mile or so from the sands and crisp blue water of Paignton’s popular beaches is a cluster of firms specialising in photonics – producing state-of-the-art products such as fibre optic technology.

Around 1,000 are employed in the sector in South Devon – producing £100 million for the local economy every year. That’s an impressive sum for a workforce that’s a fraction of the size of tourism. Many of them can be found in Paignton’s EPIC Centre, which houses the cluster of groundbreaking microelectronic and photonics companies.

It’s statistics like this that has the region’s leaders excited about Torbay and South Devon’s potential.

Just across the road from the EPIC Centre is South Devon College – and it’s no coincidence.

Principal Laurence Frewin has been instrumental in building links with the growing sector and the wider business community as the area grasps the scale of the opportunity.

“Torbay and South Devon is home to the fifth largest cluster of photonics companies in the country,” he explains. “That’s a huge opportunity for us to give a pathway to young people into a highly skilled career.

“We’ve introduced apprenticeship focused specifically on generating a future workforce for the sector locally – it gives these hi tech businesses the skilled employees they need as well as giving genuinely exciting opportunities for children growing up in Torbay.”

That’s not to say that a new wave of tech is replacing the traditional industries Torbay and South Devon has always banked on – far from it.

In 2023 though, it’s looking forward to a different kind of opportunity that’s far from the unhelpful image of a certain 1970s fictional hotelier.

A raft of new hotels are currently being built with major UK and international chains eyeing the rush to build and bringing investment to towns such as Torquay and Paignton. The likes of the globally-renowned Fragrance Group have built high-end hotels worldwide and they have plans for two in the area. 

It means the opportunity for local construction firms is lucrative – and the need for skilled workers has perhaps never been higher.

Alongside that construction is enjoying something of a boom with the five-year project for a new hospital.

“Lockdown gave a lot of people a different perception of where we live,” says Laurence. “This amazing coastline and environment we’re lucky enough to live beside – not only do we need to get out and enjoy it but we can work in harmony with for a better local economy.

“South Devon College is central to providing the workforce that can power these vitally important construction projects and the multitude of growing sectors in the area.

“These projects sit alongside fantastic opportunities such as the Town Deal in Torquay and High Street Fund, which are literally changing the face of Torquay town centre with huge opportunities for business.”

The aforementioned Town Deal has already seen £25 million pumped into supporting prime development with the potential to leverage £100 million in investment.

And way over off the South West’s opposite coastline in the seas of West Cornwall, the construction of towering offshore wind farms has presented another opportunity for the marine-savvy South Devon, where the College is training future wind farm workers at its specialist facility on the River Dart, who will help power an energy project with the potential to produce many times the nuclear energy output of Hinkley Point C.

It’s important to recognise that the area still very much has its challenges though. And while it is too glib to say “well, doesn’t everywhere?” it’s also partly true that the deprivation in areas of Torbay is as much a national issue as a local one. It’s also an issue that the wider community hopes to solve by lifting the general prospects of everyone that grows up here – and business working with education plays a crucial role in this.

Take fishing, another of South Devon’s traditional trades rooted in the fishing town of Brixham, home to the highest value catch in the UK.

South Devon College’s Marine Academy on the River Dart is producing the next generation of trawler workers and fishing specialists – undoing the issue of the sector’s ageing workforce with a specific fishing apprenticeship in what is an unexpectedly lucrative industry for young people to grow into.

“One of our key challenges is making families realise that from primary school there is a clear pathway to your dream job for a young person,” continues Laurence.

“We need businesses to help us to tell people about the opportunities they have so we can pass that message to young people and shape our curriculum around their needs.

“We think businesses also need to be prepared to invest in skills. And we understand that’s tough for businesses to hear after the past few years amid a climate of rising costs.

“But if we are going to train a workforce fit for the future they need to be thinking about skills and working with Further and Higher Education to take advantage of the opportunities we have here. They will need people trained in digital with innovative, financial and even entrepreneurial skills to succeed at their businesses.

“If we can work together we can solve one of the biggest challenges we face today – recruitment and retention.”

This all might sound like quite the story – and in fact it is. The Torbay Story to be specific.

The Torbay Story is a project by the Torbay Together partnership which strives to tell how businesses and partners are creating a new compelling vision for the three towns of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham and the countryside in-between. It’s case is an absorbing one – the area has the natural assets and the commercial dynamism placed alongside unprecedented investment to usher in a new era for Torbay.

It’s a story worth following.

South Devon College

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