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Exeter v Plymouth – the West's fascinating tale of two cities

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: May 29, 2012

The Next store in Exeter: the two cities are fighting for retail spending with the Princesshay and Drakes Circus shopping developments

Comments (0) From football to business, Exeter and Plymouth have long been rivals. Western Morning News Business Editor Liz Parks assesses who will eventually come out on top.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." So begins A Tale of Two Cities, and, while Dickens may have been writing about Paris and London, his words hold true today for the two cities that have always vied to be the Westcountry's capital.

It was announced last week that Exeter City Council is working on a marketing strategy to help it secure investment and business growth in a bid to emerge as the dominant economy south west of Bristol.

The role of first city in the far South West has always been the subject of rivalry between Exeter and Plymouth with Exeter relishing its status as county town and administrative centre of Devon and Plymouth pointing to its larger population and economy as evidence of its pre-eminence.

For the most part, this rivalry is friendly, although it has spilled over into violence when football clubs from the two cities have played each other. Let's take a look, then, at the two contenders for the crown.

Exeter is a bit of a flyweight in terms of size with a population of 120,000. But it punches well above its economic weight with big hitters such as Flybe, John Lewis and the various developments taking place to the east of the city that will see a combined investment of £1 billion in the coming years.

Forty five odd miles away down the A38, Plymouth is much bigger, with a population of 260,000 and its own economic heavyweights in the shape of giants like Wrigley's and Babcock that have been an integral part of the city's economy for many years.

Predominantly a service-based economy, Exeter is white collar, while the blue collar sectors of manufacturing and defence have always made up the backbone of Plymouth's economy – though these are now ebbing away as the balance of global power shifts to the "tiger" economies of countries like China and India.

Plymouth opened its £200 million Drake Circus shopping centre first in 2006 while Exeter's £200 million Princesshay centre opened a year later, with a more modern design.

Then there are the universities. Both are enjoying huge amounts of success from very different approaches with the University of Exeter climbing the research rankings and Plymouth University developing a strong reputation for its links to the private sector and to the renewables sector, in particular.

But the schism between the two institutions was laid bare when it was announced, last year, that the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, which the universities formed together in 2002, would be splitting into two. As of 2013, there will be a medical and dental school at Plymouth and a medical school at Exeter, despite concerns from doctors about what such a dissolution will mean.

So both cities have their competitive strengths. What, then, will differentiate them? It all comes back to geography and infrastructure. Exeter is 45 miles closer to London and it has a motorway link, an extra rail line to the capital, and, crucially, an airport. These seem to be underpinning its progress towards the best of times.

Plymouth has seen the worst of times with the closure of its airport – most likely for good despite the best efforts of campaign group Viable. It is, however, lobbying hard for improved rail services from the new Greater Western franchise in a pro-active campaign.

But the A38 will not, in the foreseeable future, be upgraded to a motorway. Plymouth is still at a disadvantage on the road network.

Of course broadband is an essential element for doing business and has changed much about the way we work, allowing remote working and Skype to reduce the need for many work-related journeys.

But goods still need to be distributed and broadband hasn't negated the need for human contact for some aspects of working life. The really important bits of work – a job interview, a contract signing, a big pitch are all likely to be done face-to-face.

The reality is that, no matter how good the technology, transport links are still paramount for a business in deciding where it will be based and anywhere that can offer good road, rail and air links will inevitably be at a competitive advantage. A motorway link and an airport are invaluable to a city's prospects, and they are seen as the norm for potential investors.

Both cities can play the work-life balance card to attract potential inward investment. Both offer lower commercial property and salary costs than the South East and Bristol. So they are clearly in competition for investors. It really is a tale of two cities and, ultimately, it will be the transport links that will decide which will come out on top.

Read more from Exeter Express and Echo

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  • gwonnacott  |  June 08 2012, 11:57AM

    The biggest problem is that neither city seems to realise that they should be collaborating to punch their weight on a global scale. Forty miles is nothing in the scheme of things. Businesses aren't interested in political boundaries - just in the scale of the economy, skill sets and knowledge. No one location in the SW is actually big enough to go it alone - but we do have real critical mass in the Peninsula if we worked together. However, they/we just carry on their/our destructive competition forgetting that it's the Chinese, Indians, Brazilians and others that will have OUR breakfast, lunch and dinner...

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  • Bob_Wickerman  |  June 01 2012, 8:23PM

    ...from Nevman 'Guess again, Bob. I live in the heart of Plymouth. I was born in Plymouth. I've lived in Plymouth all my life. That doesn't mean I close my eyes to its stagnation, decline and lack of direction, though'... I've lived in Plymouth for 10 years and have seen a succession of Labour and Tory councils running Plymouth into the ground during that time,THEY'RE the ones responsible for any decline as are the people who voted for them. I've voted for none of them (my politics are extreme right) so MY conscience is clear (smug grin)..:)

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  • Nevman  |  June 01 2012, 6:43PM

    Sorry, KSearle01, maybe I should have made myself a bit clearer. I know quite well how the internet works, thanks, and how the local news websites work too. I based my comment on the fact that, having worked in both, I've encountered blinkered parochialism far more commonly in Plymouth than in Exeter. Something else you tend to find more in Exeter, I've found, is open-mindedness and civility. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from our more prosperous neighbour.

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  • Nevman  |  June 01 2012, 6:36PM

    Bob_Wickerman said: "Admit it mate, you wished you lived in Plymouth!" Guess again, Bob. I live in the heart of Plymouth. I was born in Plymouth. I've lived in Plymouth all my life. That doesn't mean I close my eyes to its stagnation, decline and lack of direction, though.

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  • Bob_Wickerman  |  June 01 2012, 6:19PM

    Poor Exter, they haven't even got a lighthouse, a bloke with a front lamp on his pushbike is about the best they can manage! When hordes of delighted tourists stand on Plymouth Hoe looking at the world-famous Eddystone Light on the horizon, this sea shanty runs through their mind..:) "Me father was the keeper of the Eddystone Light, And he slept with a mermaid one fine night Out of this union there came three, A porpoise and a porgy, and the other was me! Chorus: With a yo-ho-ho, let the wind blow free, It's all for the life on the rolling sea!"

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  • KSearle01  |  June 01 2012, 3:47PM

    "Or it might just be that Exonians are a little less blinkered and parochial than some of us, and don't think the world stops at their city boundary..." There is also the fact that this story also appears on the "This Is Exeter" website, what with it being operated by the same company as "This Is Plymouth". A shame that a basic knowledge of how the internet works hasn't made it down the A38 to certain people...

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  • Bob_Wickerman  |  June 01 2012, 3:28PM

    from Nevman..'it might just be that Exonians are a little less blinkered and parochial than some of us, and don't think the world stops at their city boundary..." Admit it mate, you wished you lived in Plymouth! God in his wisdom placed Dartmoor on one side of Plymouth to shield it from the bad influences of rest of the country, and he placed the river Tamar on the other side to protect it from pagan Cornwall..:)

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  • Nevman  |  June 01 2012, 12:27PM

    Or it might just be that Exonians are a little less blinkered and parochial than some of us, and don't think the world stops at their city boundary...

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  • Bob_Wickerman  |  June 01 2012, 12:44AM

    Further proof of Plymouth's popularity is the fact that a lot of Exeter residents seem to be loggong onto this website! I'd never log onto 'This is Exeter' in a zillion years..:)

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  • ajannerinkent  |  May 31 2012, 4:21PM

    hstmtu4000..... My comment on the Exeter/Paddington service was one of surprise and envy but it obviously touched a nerve. The Ramsgate/Charing Cross line is hardly a commuter line at about 90 miles it takes as long to get to London if you catch it at 0600 or 1300 or 2000hrs and the early morning services don't fill up until some 25 miles outside of the Capital. From my home I could drive 30 miles to Ashford and catch our HS1 to St Pancras and travel at 125mph for 35 minutes I suppose but my 14 mile trip to work (40 minutes by train with one change) just shows how poorly off the densely populated SE is when it comes to train travel. Bob_Wickerman..... Nicely put.

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