North Devon's roadmap for recovery and how to grow the economy post-Covid

Bideford High Street.

Bideford High Street. - Credit: Archant

A roadmap for recovery from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic for North Devon and Torridge has drawn the backing of councillors.

The “Northern Devon: A Road to Recovery” document – approved by Torridge District Council’s community and resources committee on Monday (July 28) – outlines both the issues that the region has faced, and demonstrates the opportunities ahead for the area.

The prospectus lays out the aspirations for residents and businesses, a way to support inward investment activities, and to work in order to create a more strategic and collective approach to economic and community growth.

The vision is for ‘a growing, productive, clean and inclusive economy which supports well-being and happiness across our communities’, and the recovery plan will follow three distinct phases of restart, regrow and reset.

Councillors backed the plan, but did raise concerns that the increase in house prices and the speed at which homes were being snapped up, often without viewings even taking place, was making it impossible for local youngsters to get on the housing ladder.


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Torridge’s economic development manager Chris Fuller told the meeting: “There remains a recognition that we remain in the restart phase of dealing with the Covid Pandemic. This means that there continues to be a great amount of uncertainty and anxiety among both the resident and business communities, but also that there is significant opportunity.

“It is also uncertain moving forward what funding opportunities will be available, yet unless we present an ambitious and detailed set of visions and projects, we will not be able to access either funding or support, let alone gather support or attract wider investment partners.”

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He added: “We need to make sure that we were selling ourselves and attracting both attention and investment, and our intentions for the northern Devon economy moving forward. We want to pitch this in an upbeat positive way that we are selling it as not just the recovery but that we do come out of the crisis in a much stronger position.”

But Cllr Peter Christie said: “One of the main impacts we are aware of is house prices locally. I am sure we have all heard anecdotal evidence of houses selling within hours and selling off the net without people even seeing them, and that will have an enormous impact in Torridge.

“We are in dire straits as because of Covid, we have become incredibly attractive and the wonderful rollout of fibre means people can work from the home, and it looks good as the money is rolling in, but the impact on the young people is enormous and we need to build that into any future planning.”

Cllr Nick Laws added: “People have given up hope of ever being able to own their own home, and how sad that is, and that we are going to lose our talent and they will have to move away.”

And leader of the council, Cllr Ken James, added: “We aren’t going to change the market but we have to find more ways to help provide our younger people with what they need.”

Could Barnstaple town centre get part of a £675m pot? Picture: Sarah Howells

Could Barnstaple town centre get part of a £675m pot? Picture: Sarah Howells - Credit: Archant

The plan includes the ambition to support and revitalise town centres, and there is a growth in interest around markets, and the committee agreed to for the next 18 months, lift the ancient Markets Charter that prohibits unauthorised markets taking place within a six-mile radius of Bideford Town Centre without the consent of the council.

It says: “This Plan takes the place of our Economic Strategy recognising the need for a period of recovery following one of the most acute economic shocks of the Century. We have set out our intended interventions for the recovery period and our ambitions for the longer-term resetting and re-growth of our economy.

“As a region with tourism, hospitality and agriculture at the heart of the economy our businesses and our communities have been particularly impacted. The acceleration in the decline of economic activity in our town centres and the high numbers of furloughed workers across the region create ongoing risks that the growing Universal Credit claimant rate will increase further as businesses continue to remodel their operations.”

Torridge District Council's HQ, Riverbank House, in Bideford

Torridge District Council's HQ, Riverbank House, in Bideford - Credit: TDC

The Recovery Plan will be driven across four key themes to help create the conditions in which a productive, clean and inclusive economy can prosper

Economy and Innovation

  • To create the conditions in which new ideas can find the right support and assistance to develop the innovative, high growth businesses of the future which can offer high value jobs here in Northern Devon.
  • Develop a network of vibrant and flexible shared workspaces to drive collaboration and innovation, across rural areas
  • Plan for the development of future innovation needs, including grow-on spaces and specialist facilities to support innovation in growth sectors.
  • Maximise the opportunities of the Biosphere designation to create an innovative, multi-sector digital and AI infrastructure for northern Devon, supporting agriculture, marine, tourism and health

Business Environment

  • Making Northern Devon a dynamic, exciting place to start and grow a business, with a dynamic enterprise culture which inspires our young people and with the best facilities and support to help new businesses to develop from start-up through to growth, providing high value employment in the area.
  • Support the tourism sector to create dynamic leadership and strengthen its sustainability credentials
  • Raise awareness of and encourage entrepreneurship as a positive choice, from schools upwards, including partnership working with the DWP and bodies such as the Prince’s Trust.

Skills & Aspirations

  • Developing the skills required for the future and enabling opportunities to maximise potential.
  • Work with Petroc to increase access to new skills and qualifications for all in growth and high value sectors
  • Continue to work with Connecting Devon and Somerset to ensure the whole of northern Devon has access to Fibre Gigabit broadband
  • Support projects which create opportunities for higher level skills development within northern Devon
  • Create sector-focus centres of excellence

Connected Communities

  • Enabling all communities to benefit from a productive and clean economy to drive localised change.
  • Welcoming back visitors to town centres and coastal regions safely through the development of a northern Devon app
  • Develop initiatives that encourage sustainable transport solutions, such as improving cycle and footpath networks and opening up railway lines
  • Support communities and social enterprises to make a real difference to their local area from within
  • Protecting businesses and communities from future flood incidents through a programme of flood defences
  • Transform the region’s town centres, accepting that the world of retail has changed forever, and creating health and green spaces that work for the community and are vibrant places to live, work and visit.

The restart phase of the plan will focus on activity which can immediately seek to address the worst impacts of the Covid-19 crisis and support the economy as it emerges from lockdown, whether around reopening and reorienting business, supporting displaced employees; or providing initial assistance for places to reopen.

Torridge District Council leader, Councillor Ken James, says residents should not be afraid to ask t

Torridge District Council leader, Councillor Ken James, says residents should not be afraid to ask the coucnil for help and support as the region prepares to go into another coronavirus lockdown. Picture: TDC - Credit: TDC

Phase 2, the ‘regrowth’, seeks to bring forward actions which will allow business and communities to grow, addressing both economic challenges and supporting wider efforts to close the gap between Devon’s economy and the wider UK, including efforts to modernise and diversify the business community, workforce and the approach to the environment.

The final phase – the ‘reset’ – will involve actions to change and enhance the trajectory of Devon’s economy, seeking to build on Devon’s sector and business capabilities, workforce capacity and environmental strength to return economically bigger, better and bolder than when the crisis began.

The North Devon Link Road at Bishmill Gate.

The North Devon Link Road at Bishmill Gate. - Credit: Archant

Outlining the current position, the plan says that while Northern Devon is a fantastic place to live and visit, and also a great place to start and grow a business, there is a need for ‘levelling-up’ and that the coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on the region.

Torridge has the 3rd lowest workplace earning for a full time worker in UK (out of 370 districts) with £440 monthly, and it has the second lowest adult social mobility rate in England, while 12.4 per cent of the population of Torridge live in fuel poverty compared to a national average of 10.2 per cent.

And the document says that in Torridge in 2018 there were 1032.5 hospital admissions per 100,000 for 10 to 24 year olds self-harming, and 812.9 in North Devon compared to a national average of 461.22, adding: “Where is the hope for our young people?”

In terms of the impact that Covid-19 has had, Barnstaple and Bideford have had Universal Credit rates of 20 per cent and 19.29 per cent respectively, compared to six per cent nationally, both North Devon and Torridge were in the top ten per cent of regions for employees placed on furlough, and Torridge experienced the 10th highest percentage increase in unemployment.

Ilfracombe, Northam (including Appledore and Westward Ho!), Barnstaple and Bideford are also among the top five per cent of towns ‘economically exposed’ due to the fragility and seasonality of their coastal economies, research from the Centre for Towns concluded.

Key challenges that the region faces also include creating genuine levelling up opportunities for the communities, generating higher-paid, higher-skilled and less seasonal employment, giving young people a fair chance and building social mobility, an ageing demographic, and supporting housing and employment land in the face of viability challenges.

But the report outlines that North Devon and Torridge has a number of key strengths that it can exploit, including its environmental designations, the rich natural capital and renewable energy sources, high levels of enterprise and entrepreneurship, and improving skills profile, and that the quality of life can be among the best in the country.

And key opportunities for the region include the ability to ‘sell the dream’ of working in a green location post-pandemic, the ongoing rollout of superfast fibre broadband, even in the rural villages, the skills innovation centres, and the upcoming improvements to the North Devon Link Road which will improve connectivity.

Councillors unanimously backed the prospectus and delegated authority to the chief executive to assess and permit independent markets within six miles of the Bideford Pannier Market until the end of December 2022, after which time authority will again be sought.

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