Councillor Foale – Portfolio Holder for Transformation and Environment will provide an update covering the city’s Growth after Covid.
There have been a number of challenges faced by the city over the past two years, predominantly those impacted by the Covid-19 restrictions, and the subsequent knock-on impact on our businesses.
The Service Lead for Net Zero & Business will also be in attendance and offer relevant information, data and an overview of the current situation in relation to key areas of Exeter’s economy, and the response by the City Council and its partners to support the city.
Councillor Foale, Portfolio Holder Transformation & Environment provided an introduction and update on areas within his Portfolio having met with the Directors of Finance, Transformation and Net Zero and the Service Lead - Environmental Health and Community Safety. He invited the Service Lead – Net Zero & Business to present some detail on the work being undertaken to help the city’s economy recover from the Covid pandemic.
The Service Lead – Net Zero & Business referred to the challenges faced by the city over the past two years, predominantly on those impacted by the Covid-19 restrictions, and impact on businesses. A briefing note was circulated providing relevant information, data and an overview of the current situation in relation to key areas of Exeter’s economy, as well as setting out those challenges, and the responses that have been provided by the City Council and its partners.
The key areas were highlighted as –
· Retail Trade: a recent Centre for Cities report provided insights and comparisons of Exeter’s city centre to other national city centres, citing Exeter with the 8th lowest shop vacancy rate at 12.9% (June 2021). During the pandemic, neighbourhood shopping areas had fared more favourably than the High Street. The biggest retail casualty in Exeter had been in fashion retail. Exeter was identified as having the 12th highest share of spending online between 2019 and 2021, an area where spending has bounced back.
· Business openings and closures: there had been over 47 shop closures, with these mainly being national high street chains. In comparison, 59 businesses have opened in the city, the majority being independent shops using locally sourced goods. Demand for vacant units in the city centre remained positive, with units owned by the City Council being let very quickly, whilst some larger units demanding high rents remained vacant.
· City centre parking: Exeter city car parks had been effected during the pandemic with many people working from home. Ticket sales remain 16% down on pre pandemic levels, which continued to have an impact on income levels of the service managing car parks. Work continues to be undertaken by InExeter and Visit Exeter to attract people into the city centre.
· City Centre Footfall: this has moved in line with national restrictions being imposed and lifted with footfall decreasing by 5.3%, lower than the south west figure of 18.6% and the national figure of 22%. Exeter was awarded Government funding through the Reopening High Street Safely Fund and the Welcome Back Fund to provide a focus to attract people back into the city. The Net Zero and Business team were about to embark on a refresh of the contents and recommendations of the City Centre Strategy in the light of the challenges to the labour market and workforce requirements of businesses in the city. The opening of St Sidwell’s Point was keenly awaited to continue to drive up footfall.
· Labour Market: the impact of the end of the national furlough scheme has not been felt as anticipated, but was one of the reasons why Exeter Works was established in partnership with Exeter Chamber of Commerce. It supports residents and the business community in the city with advice, and guidance for those seeking jobs, careers and training. The Council’s Skills and Inclusivity Manager continues to work on the challenges of the labour market with Job Centre Plus. The team continues to raise awareness with schools, the college and university of the need to retain graduates in the city and have been working with employers to raise the sector.
· Business support: support wasadministered through the Net Zero and Business team, with the Government providing business grants and business support interventions with over 8,733 awards totalling £50 million, as well as a final Discretionary Business Exceptional Hardship Fund post pandemic.
· Housing: house prices have risen by 18% since 2016 and there has been a challenge in sourcing rental accommodation for those moving into the area. Efforts continue to be made across Devon to support key workers in sourcing rental accommodation.
In conclusion, the Net Zero and Business team welcomed the positive signs in the economy of the city, but continue with a watching brief on emerging data and information to target their work accordingly.
The Service Lead – Net Zero & Business and City Centre responded to the following Members’ questions:-
· the city was still an attractive and affordable place for relocation with a real change in recent years, with high growth around digital and tech businesses, as well as environmental science.
· the Member’s comment that there were professional colleagues who had difficulties securing accommodation was noted. The increase of Airbnb and second homes was having an impact and had the potential to hold back the growth. She would circulate information on the average rental level to Members.
· recognition of the need to ensure as many residents can benefit from the city’s growth as possible with a continuation of looking at support through access to the benefits of careers advice education and training.
· the Service Lead - Environmental Health and Community Safety has been continuing to look at how the city centre can evolve to attract more families into the city centre and extend the day time retail economy into the evening in the city centre.
The Service Lead – Net Zero & Business would circulate information on Graduate retention which had been comparable to other cities. There had been an increase from 2019 to 2020 with graduates remaining in the city and also information relating to the effect of Brexit, on economic activity in the city with an impact within the health and social care sectors.
The Chief Executive & Growth Director in responding to a Member’s question on putting forward a request for a BID for St Thomas, extending out from the Exe Bridges to the Alphington corridor, reminded Members that the focus of the business team was now on education and skills. The Service Lead – Net Zero & Business added that they were about to begin work on a refresh of the City Centre Strategy and she would raise this matter.
The Chair thanked the Portfolio Holder and the Service Lead – Net Zero & Business for their work which has shown that Exeter make all the efforts for inclusion.