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Economic Geography


What is the Somerset Economy?

The Somerset ‘economy’, is in most respects, a statistical or geographic construct, as in reality, the flows of people, goods, services and knowledge which constitute economic activity, occur across administrative boundaries (nationally and increasingly globally), whilst economic activities within any given area are not inherently related.

‘There is no universally accepted approach to measuring or defining functional economic areas and boundaries vary depending on the method used. However, we acknowledge that economic geographies often cross administrative boundaries and we want to see continued collaboration between Local Enterprise Partnerships and local authorities where this is the case’ (HM Government, July 2018, Strengthened Local Enterprise Partnerships, pp. 22-23).

According to work commissioned by the former South West RDA and utilised in the Somerset’s 2013 Local Economic Assessment (LEA), Somerset is part of four, partially overlapping functional economic zones, which provide an approximation of ‘natural economies’ operating within and across the county (see Figure 1).

  • The M5 corridor including the towns of Bridgwater and Taunton, which extends beyond Exeter. As noted above, distribution and warehousing are important sources of economic activity here.
  • The A303 corridor incorporating much of South Somerset and in particular, the manufacturing-centre of Yeovil.
  • The North East Triangle taking in Mendip and Bristol, Bath, Gloucester, Cheltenham and Swindon. While connections within Mendip itself have limitations, this zone is the most accessible and well connected to economic centres outside the County.
  • The North Peninsula is the least well connected zone with Exmoor National Park comprising a significant proportion of the area. Tourism and agriculture are correspondingly important sources of employment and income here.

This map is based on extensive evidence of linkages in economic activity across the South West, yet such zones are still gross simplifications of economic realities in a modern economy. Put simply, certain geographical areas may be more (or less) functional than others, but they never represent discrete systems of economic activity.

With no universal guidance for measuring functional economic areas, methodologies used to do so have varied. Typical factors often used to define FEMAs include Travel to Work Areas (TTWAs), wherein the bulk of the resident population also work in the same area (usually defined as at least 75% of the economically active residents working in the area also living in the area), Housing Market Areas (often defined as containing 70% of local housing moves), supply chains/industrial structures, and service market areas relating to the use of certain goods and services. Of these, TTWAs are perhaps the most commonly considered. The latest TTWAs for Somerset and its environs are set out in Figure 2, based on commuting data from the 2011 census. Somerset is represented by several TTWAs, largely dictated by the respective spheres of influence of key settlements like Taunton, Yeovil and Bridgwater.

Whilst data such as this is commonly used to inform local views regarding functional geographies, they are also typically shaped by local intelligence regarding the labour market, the perceived roles of certain settlements and their spheres of influence, as well issues such as transport and digital infrastructure. Based on a recognition of the difficulties defining functional economic areas, as well as the tendency to do so by different means in accordance with the issue (or intervention) at hand at any given time, a detailed report by SQW Consulting in 2010 set out with the explicit aim not to arrive at a single set of defined boundaries across the SW, but to explore functional geographies by varying themes (e.g. enterprise and innovation, demography and geography, the labour market, skills, economic inclusion, transport infrastructure and housing) and at different scales (i.e. local, sub-regional, etc.). In accordance with this view, growth policies need to be pragmatic and reflexive and often part of a collaborative agenda.