Plymouth in Devon is a city with great potential that is a long way off being realised.
In 2004 the Mackay Vision for Plymouth was outlined and since then there has been extensive urban redevelopment. However this has fallen short on several fronts and the city has barely kept up with the global gentrification trend, an indicator of a city’s economic success.
By various measures, Plymouth is economically a basket case. It has some of the highest poverty in the UK, relatively low average income and the unemployment rate hovers around the wrong side of the national average.
However it rates highly as one of the most attractive places to live due to it’s seaside location, has relatively affordable housing and is a dynamic urban centre, with an arts and music scene to rival local towns like Exeter.
So how has the urban redevelopment program, the David Mackay Vision for Plymouth, fallen short?
Plymouth has put a lot of it’s eggs in one basket with regards to expanding the university and student populations. Nothing wrong with attracting students of course. But the problem is that there has been little provision made for retaining these great minds once they’ve been trained.
The main employers in the city are the naval dockyard, the universities, the NHS and Princess Yachts. Plymouth does also have major companies including CDS The Range who are based in the city, but their workforce is spread across the country.
The problem is that the employment market for any graduate tends to be extremely competitive or at worst, very uninspiring. For example with the art college churning out so many designers and film makers, the local choice extends to TwoFour TV and the local BBC offices. So, many of those qualified in media leave the area for places like London or Bristol. Both of which offer many employment options for the newly qualified media professional as well as that cool city lifestyle.
Beyond media – engineers, students of law and medical practitioners will find that although there are local options there can be little to keep them in the area. Pay is often relatively low and the career ceiling of a similar height. If you want to stay in the area, sure you can, but there is little to tempt the creme de la creme.
A major headache for anyone doing business with Plymouth is how easy it is to get to. Or more accurately, how it is not easy to get to.
Beyond Exeter the motorway becomes the A38 Devon-Cornwall Expressway, which is mostly 2 lane and frequently crippled by roadworks. If there is an accident anywhere between Exeter and the Tamar, expect more delays.
The one thing you can say for train line between the Westcountry and London is that there is one.
But, it’s expensive and poorly run. As soon as there is any sort of adverse weather you end up with horrendous delays and usually a chain of rail replacement buses. Trying to take the train on any public holiday is like trying to get into Harrods on Black Friday: Ugly, messy and ill advised.
However the one thing you can say for the air link between Plymouth and the rest of the world is… There isn’t one. For a medium sized European city that touts itself as a centre for tourism and has an eye on rejuvenation, this is a joke.
The airport closed after a housing company bought it, ran it badly for a few years and then said it wasn’t cost effective. The ongoing struggle to re-open and re-develop the airport before it is turned into student housing is still unfolding.
David Mackay is famous for redesigning Barcelona, another great maritime city which was down and out. His vision for the redevelopment of Plymouth was/is bold and exciting and would definitely bring a bit of the maritime to the heart of this urban centre.
But… Plymouth is not on the Mediterranean. For a start it rains A LOT more in Plymouth than in Barcelona. And when the wind gets up, the centre of town can be like a wind funnel.
Plymouth cafe culture has come a long way and you can now easily find an al fresco coffee which was not the done thing around ten years ago. The redeveloped Royal William Yard is definitely a win for the city as is the surrounding Millbay area.
But beyond student housing and a few new cafes, little has been done to encourage growth on the high street.
For me, Plymouth has more in common with a city like Auckland in New Zealand. In many ways they are similar cities in terms of layout and even infrastructure. They are both built on stunning natural harbours, they both have fairly poor internal transport options and the main shopping drags are both quite small.
But Auckland does several things better.
Small neighbourhoods have been well developed – Ponsonby in Auckland is Mutley Plain or Stoke Village in Plymouth.
However Mutley Plain is a student ghetto packed full of charity shops. Ponsonby is a high end boutiquey kind of place with a cool market and attractive people wearing big sunglasses.
Auckland also has several very popular food courts which are packed day and night.
Plymouth has several department stores which died a long time ago and no one knows quite what to do with them. They’d be perfect for food courts, especially with the poor maritime weather most of the year.
The Oli Lynch Vision for Plymouth
It’s bold, it’s probably expensive and they’ll tell you it can’t be done. Well, they always do don’t they.
But my simple vision for the redevelopment of Plymouth could mean that you have a truly world class destination on a par with Auckland (38 hours by plane) or Barcelona (likely to get mugged) or Marseille (in France).
- Build a new airport:- Or build a very efficient link to an exisiting one. Newquay or Exeter are an hour away but if you link to Plymouth with a high speed rail service you save building a whole airport from scratch. Better still, open the old airport and make sure the first air links are to Amsterdam (connect to the rest of the world) and Frankfurt (same but also a financial hub).
- Tax free for startups:- Graduate? Got a business idea? Well, the council could waive any rates/taxes for the first (lets say) five years and then charge a sliding scale after that. This will encourage business growth and perhaps persuade newly trained entrepreneurs to stay and try their luck in the local economy. If we’re going for broke I’d suggest that the council also pay for or heavily subsidise fast internet for startups. Especially with the transport links as they are.
- High Street Revolution:- People buy all their stuff online now, it’s just the way it is. But retail space can be used creatively and cheaply which can encourage growth in a whole area – especially as the area still has high footfall. The dead end of town in Plymouth could be like an Auckland food court or Borough Market. Street food is big as is the craft beer scene. With local producers left/right/centre all they need is a reliable and cheap place to peddle their wares and away you go.
- More ART :- For smaller retail spaces, encourage the local art scene by opening small independent galleries at the dead end of town. An independent cinema like the Arts Centre would also be perfect. OK, Plymouth’s demographic may not be in to cutting edge modern art but there is a market there for it. Build it and they will come.
- Things to do:- There are things to do in Plymouth. You can take a boat ride, go fishing or make like a local and go tombstoning. But it feels like it is lacking something truly world class in terms of attractions. Barcelona has Gaudi, Auckland has the SkyTower, Marseille has the Vieux Port. Perhaps a garden of modern art like Park Guell? Or push it as an adventure sports playground like Auckland?
As a Plymothian, I do feel that the city has a lot to offer. But the way it has been managed has shown a lack of forward thinking and imagination.
A prime example is that the old bus station at Bretonside has been redeveloped, thankfully not into student flats, but a cinema entertainment complex. Never mind that there is ALREADY a cinema entertainment complex a short walk or taxi ride down the road.
Cinema tickets are expensive and there are better things that Janners (as Plymerf dwellers are called) can spend their money on.
The Urban Vision for Plymouth is not a bad one and the regeneration has helped of course, but it does take a kick from the council to make a city great. Enabling or encouraging citizens to make the city a better place should be in their remit. Not working out how to squander money on entertainment complexes when what they really need is affordable links to the rest of the country.
Ere! Think I got it all wrong maaaaate? Plymerrf is proper ‘ansome and don’t need no improvin’? Put me straight in the comments below innit my loves.