Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Torbay in decline? - Not Necessarily.

I am constantly being assured by some people that Torbay is in decline, not what it used to be, going downhill. I am told this by a wide range of people; not all of them with a political axe to grind. But just because lots of people feel that Torbay is not what it was does not make it true.

On the one side we have lots and lots of people who claim frequently that due to a lax benefits system Torbay, they say, has become the destination of choice for thousands of drug dependent, alcohol dependent homeless people; feckless single mothers, criminals and 'scroungers'. They say the harbour area has become a hotbed of crime, grime and human depravity where you will be lucky not to be beaten, mugged, or worse if you are reckless enough to find yourself there after dark. I will deal with some of these myths in a future posting.

On the other side we have lots and lots of people who claim that Torbay is in the pocket of the tourism industry which is determined to grind the good people into the dust. They say Torbay has become an economic basket-case, some kind of seaside rust-belt, whose only hope is massive Government intervention to save its helpless residents from a lifetime of poverty and hopelessness. Let’s have a look at these issues.

1) Torbay is a ‘low wage area’ because of the reliance on low paid hotel jobs. In fact nearly one in every five people (18.49%) in Torbay work in the distribution and retail industry. The next largest is manufacturing (14.69%), followed by health and social work (14.03%). Hotels and catering comes fifth with just 10 % of local employment.

2) People can only get part-time jobs. In the most recent Labour Force Study more than four out of five part-time employees were not interested in working full-time. In common with most other retirement destinations many of the local population are semi-retired. We also have an above-average number of single parent households where part-time work is often the only viable option.

3) Torbay incomes are falling. In 2002 Torbay average gross pay was 70% of the national average, by 2004 it had risen slightly to 72%; last year, according to the ONS and the GMB union the figure had risen to 77% - so although there is still a gap, it is closing.

4) There are fewer manufacturing jobs– this is not true. According to Plymouth University the numbers working in manufacturing in Torbay have been remarkably stable in a period when manufacturing across the country has been in massive decline, about 6,500 have worked in manufacturing here since the early 1960’s, the current number is around 7,000.

5) Torbay has an unemployment problem. In the mid 1990’s we had unemployment of nearly 12% whereas today unemployment rates today are just below 5%. According to ONS figures there are fewer people unemployed here than at any time since before the 1920’s. 1981 it was 5000, in 1991 there were 7,000 and in 2001 there were 4,700 local residents on the dole. Last year the figure was 1,300, although it has risen since to just below 2,000.

6) Torbay is in decline. Declining locations lose residents as people sell up and move on in search of prosperity. Average property prices have been rising in Torbay faster than both the regional and national averages; regionally prices are op 116% since 2000 - in Torbay the figure is 123%. Torbay is growing in size and density as more people move in than move out.

7) Torbay is a graveyard for business. The rate of new business registrations for VAT purposes has been climbing and is higher than the regional average. Their survival rates –at three, five and ten years are all way above the regional and national average. So more businesses are opening up and surviving longer in Torbay than elsewhere

8) Torbay town centres are dying. The amount of retail floor space in Torbay has risen by more than 50% since 1991. Despite the fact that Torbay suffers only having half the catchment area of inland locations - and in the teeth of deep recession Tesco’s, Waitrose, Marks and Spencer and Iceland are all opening or expanding stores in the Bay and the empty Woolworths store is already apparently close to being re-let.

It has suited some people to spread the view that Torbay is in economic decline; to qualify for Government aid, to make the case for the bypass and to justify much council spending it is necessary to exaggerate the negative or at least talk up the need.

And nobody is saying that Torbay has no problems, certainly not me. We do have a serious problem with pockets of very real poverty in the Bay, we have challenges with some schools, and we have problems offering young people career options. We have poor transport links and major problems keeping our older residents fit, healthy and secure. But these are the same problems we have always had because of where we are and what we are, one of the best holiday and retirement destinations in Europe. Whichever way you cut it the statistics say that Torbay is economically improving relative to the rest of the UK, the statistics prove that Torbay residents are better off than in the 1970's, the 1980's and certainly in the 1990's. We are not 'in decline' but the reverse.

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