The Canterbury Economy: Present and Future by Richard Scase

by Richard Scase, Chair, The Canterbury Society

The Canterbury and District economy consists of four major employment sectors; (1) Education accounts for about 20% with 12,000 employees; (2) Retail and distribution services employing 19% representing 11,500 staff; (3) Health and welfare services 16%; (4) Hospitality, tourism and leisure 10%; and (5) Professional and technical services 6%.

Average weekly earnings for both men and women in full-time and part-time jobs for those living in Canterbury are lower  than in Kent and the South-East.

In the Canterbury District, 90% of private sector companies are ‘micro’ in that they employ less than 9 staff members and a further 9% employ less than 49. Self-Employed men and women account for 20% of total employment.

Sixty percent of employees in the district is engaged in managerial, professional and technical jobs compared to 45 per cent in Kent and the national average. The percentage of total Canterbury employment represented by these occupations has increased over the past 10 years. Less than 12% are engaged in manufacturing in the Canterbury district.

Gross weekly pay has increased for men and women in both full-time and part-time jobs since 2010. But women continue to earn less than men and both men and women in Canterbury earn less than the average for the Southeast.

 The present population of the Canterbury District is 160,000 with 18% over the age of 65. There is a projected increase of older men and women of 12% by 2026. A similar percentage increase will be for children under the age of 16. Thus, a sharp increase in the dependency ratio.

The Canterbury economy is ‘polarized’. On the one hand there are two major education providers (Kent and Canterbury Christ Church universities) together with other public sector employers. On the other, there is a broad range of privately and locally owned businesses in the retail and hospitality sectors.

The two major universities, as well as the University of the Creative Arts, have little outcome for entrepreneurial start-up and self-employment in the professional services sector. This is despite the fact the Canterbury hinterland and the city’s proximity to London as a global hub is well-suited to offer excellent opportunities for such businesses.

The major contribution of the universities to the local economy, in terms of employment, is Canterbury Christ Church with its delivery of nursing, social welfare and teaching graduates.  

But there are other ways the Canterbury economy is dependent upon its student population. The retail and hospitality sectors are heavily reliant on students, recruited as temporary, part-time workers hired on zero hours contracts. These set the norm for employment in these sectors affecting the wages and employment of local permanent residents. For example, the insecurities and low earnings of women, concentrated as they are in part-time jobs.

A zero hour contract culture now pervades the retail sector to a far greater extent than in the past -although such a pattern is difficult to quantify in the absence of reliable data. To be hired on a four-hour basis, often with little notice, creates uncertainties for personal and family life. Small employers require their staff to be ‘flexible’ and ‘on call’. Without doubt, such employment opportunities have become crucial for the sustainability of the local retail and hospitality sectors. But this should not be an excuse.

CLOUDS ON THE HORIZON

The Canterbury economy is facing a number of challenges.

EDUCATION

There are already indications that the attraction to young people of full-time, residential higher education is in decline. They are beginning to realise that  universities are but one of many career pathways. This is particularly in the areas of the liberal arts and the non-laboratory disciplines.

Knowledge can now be gained online and accessed anywhere in the world. It seems to be likely universities will need to adapt their function. It will be to guide and to enthuse students through the analysis of information acquired online. This will mean the offer of intensive periods of short-term spells of university attendance, for example, over weekends rather than full-time residential study.

Employers are also re-assessing their graduate recruitment needs so that they are less likely to require job applicants to have degrees. If this was to happen on a large-scale there could be repercussions for the Canterbury economy. The student buy-to-let property market would go into decline, destroying the businesses of landlords, the incomes of many pensioners and the livelihoods of many others. For example, the self-employed and those engaged in the construction, maintenance and repair of student buy-to-let properties.

The viability of many businesses in the hospitality and leisure sectors, as well as the night-time economy would also be threatened by a sharp fall in student numbers as they are vital as consumers and as part-time employees.

RETAIL

With the exception of London and some regional hotspots, shopping high streets in towns and cities across the country are, in general, in decline. They are being hit by the growth of online shopping. Although Canterbury has the magnetic pull of the Cathedral as a tourist destination, it will not buck the national trend.

To attract shoppers, city centres will need to be appealing destinations with graffiti and litter-free streets, friendly welcoming environments and, most importantly, ease of access.  Canterbury with its present-day traffic congestion, noise, and pollution could lose its shopper appeal to on-line traders and to other regional centres such as Bluewater and Stratford Westfield.

National ‘high-end’ retailers will  shun the city with the central shopping area dominated by budget and cheaper discount stores. With personal services such as nail parlours, hairdressing salons, cafes and microwave -heated food outlets thrown into the mix.  

CANTERBURY’S HERITAGE ASSETS

Canterbury is a national heritage city. This offers scope for further visitor growth that could compensate for the decline in its retail offer. But other than the Cathedral, how little is known of its heritage assets? How many local residents are aware the city is an international World Heritage Site? The Canterbury ‘brand’ may be appealing but  there is limited awareness among the millions of overseas tourists that come to the UK each year. How many know Canterbury is but 54 minutes away from London? Where is the marketing of the city in that major tourist magnet? With the displacement of jobs in the retail sector, the outcome will be that hospitality and leisure services will be more dependent upon the marketing of local heritage assets for job creation and economic growth.

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