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Plymouth is weathering the storm

A taxi driver friend of mine and I were talking recently about the terrible haemorrhaging of jobs which had taken place in Plymouth since we arrived. He had written down a list of the vanished enterprises, which I’m sure is by no means exhaustive. Glancing down the melancholy column I wondered how it was possible for any city to survive such a culling. The roll-call made for depressing reading.

  • Aggie Weston’s
  • Clarks
  • Comet
  • Derry’s Cross Co-op
  • Gaumont Palace Cinema
  • HM Dockyard
  • Hoe Theatre
  • Jaeger
  • Ladybird Factory
  • Millbay railway station
  • Navy, Army and Air Force Institute
  • Odeon Cinema
  • Plymouth Airport
  • Popham’s
  • Robert Daniel’s Cash and Carry
  • Royal Naval Engineering College
  • Royal Naval Gunnery School
  • Royal Naval Hospital
  • Seaton Barracks
  • Texas Instruments
  • Toshiba
  • Woolworths

We talk about austerity times, but if someone with a crystal ball had predicted the certain eclipse of all these enterprises and had been believed, there would have been a mass exodus from what would have been perceived as a doomed city. No one would have thought it possible to survive such a cataclysm.

So how fares the good ship Plymouth after this protracted bloodletting? Not bad! Not bad at all. Amazingly, the city which looks down on us today is little short of a stunning reincarnation. I will not say there are jobs a plenty, but its employment level compares favourably with most of the rest of the country. In my suburb of Plympton it stands at 3 per cent. In five short years much of the city centre was transformed, just in time to beat the credit crunch which brought development to a grinding halt. I have a strong feeling, however, that if you visited many another city a similar list could have been drawn up. But Plymouth, as a garrison city, suffered unduly harshly because of defence cuts due to the rundown of Empire.

Capitalism and the market do work. One way or another, jobs come to fill the void. The doomsayers are seldom right. How prescient that in the one area of the economy which has not been affected by the recession – the world of the super rich – Plymouth has found a response in Princess Yachts.

Princess Yachts has proven to be recession-proof

Princess Yachts has proven to be recession-proof

But apart from the acres of luxury, seafront apartments created out of clapped out warehouse and the sparkling, gigantic Drake Circus development, the most stunningly successful of all Plymouth’s new enterprises has been the transformation of its previously lacklustre, old polytechnic. Only a very few of the many polytechnics magicked overnight – to the scorn of many – into universities can aspire to a place at the top table of the long established universities. But Plymouth University is undoubtedly one of them. Its student numbers are vast and are a testament to the high regard in which it is held. It is architecturally new and striking; plum in the centre of the city giving it a real buzz which it has never had before, and much of its student accommodation is second to none. And its academic rigour is impressive. If its onward and upward march continues, I predict it will earn itself one day a place in that select pantheon of the elite universities in the Russell Group (I will write more of this in a later article).

So well done Plymouth. You have looked adversity in the face and have prospered against the odds. You have survived a storm, different in kind, but every bit as furious as any your illustrious seafarers ever met on the oceans of the world. They would be proud of you.

Doomed to mediocrity

As Zero Hour approaches with regard to Plymouth airport we have to ask ourselves some very important questions.

Are present communications by road and rail so good and secure that we can still thrive by relying on them alone?

Are we confident that Captains of Industry thinking of establishing great centres of work will not dismiss us instantly because they cannot access us in the shortest time possible; maybe even think that because we have no air link there is something odd about us?

Are we confident that in a rapidly changing world nobody in the future will step forward with a plan which will work?

Is the prospect of foreclosing on an option which can never be reversed something that we can live with?

In today’s world large numbers of tuppenny ha’penny places have airports. They are regarded almost as a mark of the community’s virility. For myself it is a resounding NO to every one of these questions and I will tell you why.

Plymouth is the only big city in a peninsula 200 miles long, which commands the Western Approaches and with the largest naval dockyard in Europe is an important regional centre.

Are we not peculiarly at risk by rail and by road? When the Victorians drove through their rail link they were anxious to make the journey (experience) a memorable one; quite rightly so.

In some places they did brave things, like when they challenged the ocean waves by running so perilously close to them as they did in places like Dawlish.

They could not be expected to know that man made emissions would alter the world’s climate so that extremes of weather would become a regular feature of life.

It is entirely possible that, as a result, that line may be broken if not washed away at some point in the future. What then do we do?

That marvel for its time, the almost 170 year old Brunel suspension rail bridge must surely be coming to the end of its life so that Cornwall becomes no longer accessible by rail.

May not the private operator, faced also with a storm lashed, perilous and collapsing Dawlish line, then decide to cut his losses and end the rail link at Exeter?

I remember well the storm of protest that met the decision to end the M5 at Exeter. Nothing would move them.

It was almost as though they’d got it in for Plymouth. They gave us a quite superior A 38 for the remaining 40 miles and tried to console us by calling it the Devon Expressway.

But nobody was fooled. At the end of the day it remained at best a dual carriage way. When accidents, resurfacing and other repairs happen we are doomed to single lane traffic. Imagine your Captain of Industry who on being told he could not fly then asking for a first Class rail ticket only to be told that isn’t possible either.

He then takes to the road and ends up in nose to tail single lane traffic. Nice one Plymouth City! This may all sound bizarre and it is. But it entirely within the bounds of possibility. These thoughts and other should be pressing on the minds of those who are charged with looking to the future of our city.

No one blames Sutton Harbour Development Company for seeking to coin a buck – millions of them by off-loading non profitable airport land to make themselves a fortune – with all sorts of other developments. Their duty is to their shareholders not the people of Plymouth.

I do blame a desperate city, though, for granting them such a preposterous lease as 150 years. They may as well have sold it to them freehold, but perhaps as well they didn’t, they might have let it go for silly money.

So strongly do I believe many people view this issue that it would not surprise me in the least to see protesters sitting on the runway on the day the bulldozers were told to move in.

Our city seems obsessed with short term considerations. Of course it is right not to burden itself with loss making operations, but its priorities seem very skewed when it rushes off to build theatres, Pavilions, Domes, Life Centres and even Aquariums.

Some may say this is all very wonderful while others might to say it is self indulgent.

All I know is that Plymouth must keep its lungs and arteries open while being ready at the same time to receive the world. Business should trump all other considerations. From that comes the wherewithal to do all these other no doubt commendable things.

It is not, even now, too late to hold back from an irrevocable decision. While it is impossible to predict what the future holds, what seems foolhardy in the extreme is to do this thing; like close down the argument forever.

Who would want to be the man or council who very possibly doomed this city to permanent mediocrity? What a sad epitaph to have to say that it happened on my watch.

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