Exeter v Plymouth – the West's fascinating tale of two cities
From football to business, Exeter and Plymouth have long been rivals. Western Morning News Business Editor Liz Parks assesses who will eventually come out on top.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." So begins A Tale of Two Cities, and, while Dickens may have been writing about Paris and London, his words hold true today for the two cities that have always vied to be the Westcountry's capital.
It was announced last week that Exeter City Council is working on a marketing strategy to help it secure investment and business growth in a bid to emerge as the dominant economy south west of Bristol.
The role of first city in the far South West has always been the subject of rivalry between Exeter and Plymouth with Exeter relishing its status as county town and administrative centre of Devon and Plymouth pointing to its larger population and economy as evidence of its pre-eminence.
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For the most part, this rivalry is friendly, although it has spilled over into violence when football clubs from the two cities have played each other. Let's take a look, then, at the two contenders for the crown.
Exeter is a bit of a flyweight in terms of size with a population of 120,000. But it punches well above its economic weight with big hitters such as Flybe, John Lewis and the various developments taking place to the east of the city that will see a combined investment of £1 billion in the coming years.
Forty five odd miles away down the A38, Plymouth is much bigger, with a population of 260,000 and its own economic heavyweights in the shape of giants like Wrigley's and Babcock that have been an integral part of the city's economy for many years.
Predominantly a service-based economy, Exeter is white collar, while the blue collar sectors of manufacturing and defence have always made up the backbone of Plymouth's economy – though these are now ebbing away as the balance of global power shifts to the "tiger" economies of countries like China and India.
Plymouth opened its £200 million Drake Circus shopping centre first in 2006 while Exeter's £200 million Princesshay centre opened a year later, with a more modern design.
Then there are the universities. Both are enjoying huge amounts of success from very different approaches with the University of Exeter climbing the research rankings and Plymouth University developing a strong reputation for its links to the private sector and to the renewables sector, in particular.
But the schism between the two institutions was laid bare when it was announced, last year, that the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, which the universities formed together in 2002, would be splitting into two. As of 2013, there will be a medical and dental school at Plymouth and a medical school at Exeter, despite concerns from doctors about what such a dissolution will mean.
So both cities have their competitive strengths. What, then, will differentiate them? It all comes back to geography and infrastructure. Exeter is 45 miles closer to London and it has a motorway link, an extra rail line to the capital, and, crucially, an airport. These seem to be underpinning its progress towards the best of times.
Plymouth has seen the worst of times with the closure of its airport – most likely for good despite the best efforts of campaign group Viable. It is, however, lobbying hard for improved rail services from the new Greater Western franchise in a pro-active campaign.
But the A38 will not, in the foreseeable future, be upgraded to a motorway. Plymouth is still at a disadvantage on the road network.
Of course broadband is an essential element for doing business and has changed much about the way we work, allowing remote working and Skype to reduce the need for many work-related journeys.
But goods still need to be distributed and broadband hasn't negated the need for human contact for some aspects of working life. The really important bits of work – a job interview, a contract signing, a big pitch are all likely to be done face-to-face.
The reality is that, no matter how good the technology, transport links are still paramount for a business in deciding where it will be based and anywhere that can offer good road, rail and air links will inevitably be at a competitive advantage. A motorway link and an airport are invaluable to a city's prospects, and they are seen as the norm for potential investors.
Both cities can play the work-life balance card to attract potential inward investment. Both offer lower commercial property and salary costs than the South East and Bristol. So they are clearly in competition for investors. It really is a tale of two cities and, ultimately, it will be the transport links that will decide which will come out on top.