Chester is ‘on the up’ according to Chester MP Stephen Mosley or ‘struggling just to stay afloat’ according to Labour parliamentary hopeful Chris Matheson. As we launch Chronicle Jobs Month for September, David Holmes provides a snapshot of the city’s economy and looks at the state of recruitment in the area.
Job prospects in Chester are looking rosy as the green shoots of recovery emerge following several gloomy years that hit the city’s financial services.
JobCentre Plus is currently advertising 3,000 jobs within five miles of the city – however wages in Cheshire West are lower than the national average, partly due to the agricultural sector and lower paid banking staff.
Latest figures show 434 fewer jobseekers in Chester than this time last year. The number of unemployed claimants in the City of Chester Parliamentary constituency in July was 1,413 – representing a 3% unemployment rate.
There is no doubt the city has lost hundreds of financial services jobs including from companies like Lloyds Banking Group and MBNA – although MBNA’s new global technology centre is expected to generate up to 1,000 jobs.
But the city’s broad economic base and educated workforce has helped Chester plc brave the storm and it is well placed to benefit as the economy begins to turn around.
The growth of the popular University of Chester has continued to act as an economic dynamo, the future of Airbus over the border into North Wales is secure because of orders for the new A350 aircraft and Chester Zoo is pursuing its £30m Exotic Island project, which aims to attract 150,000 extra visitors as well as safeguarding 500 jobs and creating another 100.
Longer term, the city aims to become a premier office location through establishing a Central Business Quarter next to Chester railway station, with work commencing on site next January.
A worry for high streets across the UK and Chester is the uncertain future of retail against competition from out-of-town centres like Cheshire Oaks and the growth of online shopping.
Cheshire West and Chester Council has been applauded for its efforts to bring a department store, bars, restaurants and a multiplex cinema in the heart of the city, but doubts remain about the Northgate scheme’s viability.
Indicating a sea change is the fact that some empty retail units are being converted into restaurants including Yo! Sushi and the proposed restaurant quarter in the former Habitat store.
And while Chester has slipped down the league table as a visitor magnet, the racecourse continues to thrive, the cultural offering is improving and the aim is to make the city ‘a must see’ European destination to claw back the tourist pound.
Tory MP Stephen Mosley said: “Chester is moving up the rankings in terms of employment and the number of jobs in Chester is better than the national average and improving.”
Cheshire and Warrington is now the best performing sub-region outside the south east, he said.
“I think a lot of it is down to confidence. If you think an area is ‘on the up’ then you are more likely to invest and start taking risks.”
However, Labour parliamentary candidate Chris Matheson, who works for trade union Unite, offered a different perspective.
He said: “There are many great things about Chester but the strength of our local economy is not one of them. Minimal growth nationally means that many businesses are still struggling just to stay afloat; and although unemployment locally has recently fallen, we know that four out of five new jobs since 2010 are in the low pay, low skill part of the economy.
“Real wages have fallen for all but one of the last 36 months, costing Chester families around £1,300 a year in lost wages.
“I am especially worried that the number of long-term and youth unemployed is rising, and I fear another lost generation, exploited particularly by the growth of zero-hours contracts and temporary jobs.
“Until we get a government committed to economic growth and to skilled, well paid employment, Chester will not return to the once-prosperous status we previously enjoyed.”
A new report from Duport.co.uk reveals a sharp dip in company formation in Chester around the time of the financial crisis in 2008, but that company formation numbers have been rising every first half of the year since then.
Peter Valaitis, managing director of Duport.co.uk, said: “Chester has a lot to offer, especially in terms of the tourist market. However, our report shows that the local economy really suffered with a huge dip in company formation during the first half of 2008. The steady increase in new business since then shows the city is gradually rebuilding its business base after a difficult period.”
A council-commissioned report by Nevin Leather Associates examining the impact of economic growth on the demand for housing in Chester forecasts that between 2010 and 2020 there will be a jobs growth in the city of between 800 and 4,000 posts.