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It's official: Worcester IS great, say experts
WORCESTER is a great city - and has the potential to become one of the UK’s choice destinations for international tourism, jobs, living and leisure.
An independent assessment has been made on how the Faithful City has performed over the last few years and what the future should hold.
The 89-page dossier, seen exclusively by your Worcester News, reveals:
- Worcester has survived the recession in “remarkably” good shape, with £370m of private sector investment pouring in since 2007
- 5,941 new jobs have been created in Worcester since 1998, an excellent 13 per cent growth rate “unlike” other parts of the UK
- It has a “buoyant” shopping and leisure offer that outperforms even rival cities like York
- Comparisons with the likes of Exeter, Bath and Durham reveal how Worcester has done very well in attracting jobs, money and year-on-year improvements despite the economy
- The city should make far more of its canals and waterways, be bolder and model itself on the likes of Venice
- Worcester’s challenge now is to raise its ambitions, with assessors saying the city has been guilty of not shouting about itself more and “overlooking higher aspirations”
- The ‘quality of life’ is so high, it should be looking to attract more major employers, as living in Worcester would be preferable to London for many people
The city council asked Zeta Economics, a major research firm, to undertake a root-and-branch review of Worcester at a cost of £10,000.
The findings lift a fascinating lid on where Worcester has been heading and what the key aims should be in the years ahead.
It says the city is “moving in the right direction” and that since 2007, public spending of around £70 million has resulted in £370 million of private sector investment going in.
It also says there is huge potential for several “iconic” developments to catapult Worcester into a stronger position, citing the £100 million revamp of Sherriff Street and the future sale of the Cornmarket car park and Trinity House as real opportunities.
Councillor Geoff Williams, city council deputy leader and cabinet member for economic prosperity, said: “The Zeta report indicates the city is well placed to take advantage of opportunities for economic growth.
“I welcome the report as a significant contribution to our ambitious plans to make Worcester a great city for all.”
Worcester MP Robin Walker said: “I completely agree with pretty much everything in the report - we’ve just got to get on with it now and deliver.”
THE CITY CENTRE
WORCESTER’S city centre and the sheer choice of independent shops, chains, bars and restaurants comes in for particular praise in the report.
Of the 31 national retailers considered ‘big’ by Zeta Economics, Worcester has all but six, with the report citing Waitrose, John Lewis and Wilkinson as the main omissions.
It says like everywhere Worcester was hit by the recession, with the percentage of empty units climbing from 12 per cent a year on average to around 18 per cent.
But it praises the clothing and footwear shops in the city, saying the choice is above the national average, making up for a lack of newsagents and confectionary stores.
It cites Worcester’s “healthy reputation” among retailers, and reveals there is considerable interest from new shops to add to the offer, saying 35 have currently registered their interest in opening up an outlet.
It says one key challenge is the “very high levels of competition” from shopping sites anywhere up to 60 miles away, particularly Bristol and Birmingham.
It blames the slow take up of units at the £75 million St Martin’s Quarter on competition, saying “the need to differentiate Worcester has never been as important as at the present time”.
The strength of independent shops is also lauded, with the report saying one of the city’s main strengths is the unique experience of Worcester.
It also urges Worcester to aim high for the future land sale of the Cornmarket and Trinity House, saying it should seek to make a real statement by creating a striking, modern arty development that gets people talking, much like The Hive.
Adrian Field, from Worcester Business Improvement District, which represents city retailers, said: “The number of people shopping online is increasing, with the ‘click and collect’ method becoming more popular.
“The High Street is doing well and a lot of it will be about embracing online and seeing it as an opportunity, not a threat.”
JOBS AND THE ECONOMY
EMPLOYMENT is another area where Worcester has done remarkably well - with job creation described as “very strong”.
The city now has more than 52,000 jobs, a rise of 5,941 since 1998, a story which goes against trends elsewhere.
That growth would have been even stronger if it were not for the recession in 2008, which wiped out around 2,000 positions as companies shrank to survive.
The report says the city can boast “a lot of resilience” and has “kept on attracting businesses” while the wider West Midlands has been in decline.
It does say there is a “significant over reliance” on retail jobs, and that Worcester must be ambitious in attracting larger employers which offer pay better rates of pay.
It says there is no reason why Worcester cannot create more high-level jobs in areas like financial services, architecture, science, research, engineering and computer programming, saying these are the growth industries which hold the key to an even more prosperous future.
It says the economy of Worcester is “steeped in history” and linked to its iconic past, but things are changing quickly and a response is needed now.
Crucially, it calls for the city to start aiming for higher targets, saying “everything points towards Worcester overlooking higher aspirations”.
It argues that Worcester’s ‘quality of life argument’ is as strong now as ever, saying more big firms should be tempted to place their headquarters here instead of the South East, following the example of Sanctuary Housing.
It says Worcester is “well placed to lure” innovative companies over the likes of Birmingham, Bristol and “even Greater London” due to its geography, cheaper office space and great lifestyle.
THIS is one area where Worcester needs to shout more loudly - with the report saying the city has been underperforming.
It says “despite a rich history and architectural heritage” Worcester could be doing better, especially when compared to rival cities.
Worcester brings in 2.5 million visitors per year, most of them from the UK, compared to York’s 3.9 million, despite the report’s assessors saying the Faithful City has a superb offer.
It says Birmingham and Cheltenham either side of Worcester are major markets for Irish tourists, but only “a very small number” spill over and come here.
In 2006, £23 million was spent by tourists in Worcester, but in 2011 it fell to £18 million, despite Worcester becoming more and more impressive.
It cites Worcester’s world-reknowned assets like the Cathedral, The Hive, the cricket and rugby sides, the Royal Worcester Porcelain museum and The Commandery, saying the city has a lot to boast about.
It says Worcester is not featuring anywhere near prominently enough on major web sites like Visit England, where it tends to be elbowed out the way by rivals like Bath and Cambridge.
It calls for a fresh focus on marketing the city as a UK-class destination for overseas people, suggesting the assets Worcester has are not in doubt, but it must shout about them louder.
It also hails the development of the new Premier Inns hotel at New Road, saying that could see a step-change in accommodation.
Robin Walker, Worcester’s MP said: “There are a number of challenges but we are getting better, particularly with hospitality.
“If you look at how close we are to the Cotswolds and Stratford-upon-Avon, they get massive numbers of international visitors - there’s a huge opportunity there.”
Flooding is mentioned as being a vital issue to tackle for Worcester’s future prosperity, but the city is being urged not to fear it.
The report says rather than worry about its consequences, more could be done to take advantage of it, both for tourism benefits and in terms of designing striking, modern buildings that can hold off rising water levels and are nice to look at.
“It seems that Worcester could be better off embracing the flood water rather than resisting them,” it says.
“Residential buildings that adapt to flooding can look futuristic and be of high quality, this will not only develop the riverside further, it will add distinctive character and edge to Worcester.”
It also says Worcester’s riverside and canals are a key asset, saying it could learn from the likes of Venice in building around them more to attract visitors.
It describes the current architecture in the city as “amazing”, and pays tribute to the University of Worcester for contributing in a very large way, as with The Hive and the University Arena in Hylton Road.
It also says the “availability of waterfront sites for development” is a major strength of the city, and has the potential to be unlocked further.
Zeta Economics believes focusing on the riverside and canals will also help push the “unclear tourism offer and positioning”, and could tempt more visitors in.
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