The new Strategic Economic Plan (SEP) produced by the Coast to Capital (C2C) LEP is an ambitious document. It sets out a vision for investment and growth for the next 12 years across an area with a total population of two million, an economy worth £50.7 billion and one of the nation’s most highly skilled workforces.
So what’s the problem that the new Plan seeks to tackle? It explains that the area’s competitive advantage is being eroded with its economic growth not showing the recovery after the 2008 financial crisis of other comparable LEP areas. It is over reliant on London, with 10% of workers travelling to London each day. House prices reach London levels despite median wages that are significantly lower than the capital and are even below the average for the South East.
The Plan’s answer to this challenge is to create a more sustainable economic base that is less reliant on London and that makes more of the area’s natural strengths such as its international connectivity, its countryside, its strong University sector and its reputation for innovation. The concept of sustainability runs throughout the document and one of its eight economic priorities is investment in sustainable growth, including natural capital and low carbon technology.
One of the LEP’s key natural assets is the South Downs National Park. The quiet beauty of the rolling downland and its iconic coastline is one of the main reasons businesses choose to locate here in the first place, as well as providing an incentive for them to stay put as they grow. The LEP area also includes parts of the Surrey Hills and High Weald AONBs so it is richly endowed with high quality landscapes.
The South Downs National Park Authority is pleased that the Plan recognises the huge importance of its world-class natural environment and protected landscapes like the National Park and AONBs as foundations for economic growth and we look forward to working closely with C2C in its ambition to be a partner of choice in delivering the Government’s 25 year Plan for the Environment.
If the potential of the area’s natural capital is to be exploited to the full, however, it should not be restricted to one or two priorities within the Plan but should support and enhance them all. Environmental connectivity is just as important as digital or transport connectivity. Our green infrastructure supports the necessary improvements to the area’s brown infrastructure, giving business the room to breathe and the space for recreation, as well as providing the water supply and produce on which they depend.
The Plan is right to identify Gatwick as the fulcrum for much of the growth that it seeks to stimulate but care must be taken not to be too single-minded in this aim. The diversity and innovation of business in the South East is an important competitive advantage and the rural economy a key component. For example, a recent SDNPA study showed that there are 8,000 businesses in the National Park, most of them small or micro, and that a surprising 5,000 jobs exist in manufacturing.
A fifth of Coast to Capital’s businesses are in rural locations, accounting for 27% of its economic output. Viticulture is undergoing dynamic expansion and the visitor economy makes up nearly 10% of all C2C enterprises. There is a constant flow of activity between rural and urban, with micro business start-ups in the countryside moving to larger premises in towns but others relocating to rural areas for quality of life and lower costs. Brexit, and the huge uncertainties about the future of farming, make the need to focus more on the rural economy all the more urgent.
C2C’s new Strategic Economic Plan is therefore right to be ambitious and its vision provides a sound basis for sustainable economic growth. However, the forthcoming Local Industrial Strategy, which will flow from it, needs to champion growth in the rural economy with as much zeal as it is addressing urban growth if it is to unlock the full potential of our exceptional region.