On the November day that Reading and Oxford topped the Demos-PwC Good Growth for Cities 2018 Index* for the third year running, followed by Southampton – highlighting a compelling growth story for the South East – the underlying question at the Reading UK Economic Forum was ‘How can Reading ensure it remains successful, particularly with Brexit challenges on the horizon?’
The key answers from a well-informed panel seemed to be:
Behind-the scenes promotional work for the town was revealed by Adam Jacobs, chair of Reading UK. This included ongoing events and public realm enhancement set to be continued by a fresh supportive £2.5 million BID from January 2019, the upcoming Festival of Digital Disruption, and inclusion of Reading on England’s Great West Way tourism route. Reading would also soon be staging its largest ever ‘Magical Christmas’ marketing campaign.
Reading UK board member and Peter Brett Associates partner Scott Witchalls noted the town’s continuing history of progressive diversity and evolution, helping to create its successful business economy, excellent transport and communication links, and attractive lifestyle. “And we’ve got technology in spades, but in ‘smart city’ terms it’s about how you use it.”
Based on the Huawei UK Smart Cities Index, Reading had “…come from nowhere to be Number 17. Effectively from playing non-league to having a Premier League team, recognised as a community using technology seriously.”
Verizon human resources director James Montgomery explained the attraction of Reading for his US company: “We arrived here because we wanted to be embedded with our customer-base, and there are few better places to be. Reading has it all – access to the business segments that we service, great infrastructure with proximity to London and ease of travel to any part of Europe, the good road/rail network, education, university, Henley Business School, even real estate. And, all these things have improved beyond recognition over the past 20 years.”
Peter Hart CEO Austin Fraser agreed, noting that Reading’s UK location and ease of access to a very large skilled talent pool offered his company “the easiest place to harness and attract talent compared to our other international offices.”
Montgomery concurred, adding that the same could be said about Reading’s ‘supply chain’ of service providers and professional advisers.
With the unspoken challenges of Brexit in the minds of several seminar attendees, Mike Skelton, director of the Mayor’s Office of Richardson, Texas outlined the very real US opportunities for Reading as an international trading partner – not least because of the town’s thriving modern economies and business sector similarities.
Noting the South East region’s high GVA and attractiveness to businesses, John Ellis, PwC senior partner in Reading, commented on the Good Growth for Cities 2018 Index: “This reflects continued improvement across a range of measures, including jobs, income, skills, health scores and growth driven by technology-focused businesses.”
However, the “price of success” has become increasingly evident with declining scores since last year’s index for transport, owner occupation rates and particularly housing affordability, being some of the ongoing challenges facing UK cities.
“Continued collaboration across business clusters to develop a shared approach to economic development is essential to unlocking transformative growth across the region,” stated Ellis.
Nigel Horton-Baker, executive director of Reading UK, added later: “Reading has topped PwC’s UK growth league consistently over recent years, reflecting the fact that businesses here enjoy the benefits of a highly skilled workforce with great connectivity and a buoyant business eco-system, plus their employees benefit from some of the highest salaries in the UK, strong career paths and a great quality of life.
“Reading is also well placed to deal with any international economic shocks we may face in coming years. With the public sector working hard to deliver more affordable housing, our transport network going from strength to strength – the arrival of the Elizabeth Line, a new station at Green Park, a direct rail link to Heathrow – and a strong pipeline of international investment, Reading is forecast to continue its ‘good growth’ well into the future.”
The Demos-PwC index shows that almost all major UK cities improved their score relative to our 2017 index, driven primarily by cyclical falls in unemployment rates.
The South East also performed well among England’s 38 local enterprise partnership (LEP) areas. Top performing LEP Oxfordshire was narrowly ahead of Buckinghamshire Thames Valley and Thames Valley Berkshire.
* The Demos-PwC Good Growth for Cities Index 2018 measures the current performance of 42 of the largest UK cities against 10 indicators seen by the public as critical to economic success and wellbeing. Employment, health, income and skills are key, but housing affordability, commuting times, environmental factors and income inequality are also included.
The index covers ‘cities’ with a travel-to-work area (TTWA) of at least 250,000 people.