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- Cornwall boasts a higher proportion of people with fibre connections than most European cities
- Ongoing investment will spur even greater growth
- Many existing firms are planning to expand and attract more staff to Cornwall
- Quality of life a big factor in the area’s appeal
Superfast broadband and a growing software industry are turning Cornwall into a hive of activity for technology companies.
The Cornish village of the Lizard is about as far away as an English business could possibly be from the bustling London streets of Shoreditch and its ‘Silicon Roundabout’. The southernmost community in Britain, this dozy village of 900 people sits on a sunny peninsular that is even further south than Land’s End.
Driving to London takes longer from the Lizard than from Carlisle, way up on the Scottish border, and mobile phone signals can be less than reliable in this remote tip of Cornwall. But it is here that Andrea and Rob Edlin chose to base their online marketing and analytics firm, Niddocks.
“People said we were crazy,” recalls Andrea about their 2007 decision to sell their web development company in Nottinghamshire and move to an area that they knew only from scuba-diving holidays.
Atrociously slow internet connections were an immediate problem and Andrea laughs when thinking about how difficult things were before their internet connection speeds were massively improved in 2011 by fibre-optic cables largely funded by BT and the European Union.
These days, the Edlins’ two-person business has clients as far afield as Morocco, conducting webinars and video conferences with ease, thanks to some of the best upload speeds in Europe. “Our connection speeds are almost unlimited and our productivity has gone through the roof,” she says. “Coming here turns out to be the best thing we’ve ever done.”
Huge investment in infrastructure
The EU’s largest investment in superfast broadband infrastructure, the fibre roll-out, created the world’s biggest rural fibre broadband network and meant that, by 2014, Cornwall had a higher proportion of its population with fibre connections than most European cities, the UK as a whole, and countries such as Germany and the US.
With more than 95% of premises in Cornwall now connected to superfast broadband and work continuing on a goal of 99%, it no longer seems crazy for the Edlins to run their business from their village home in a region that is still struggling from the collapse of its traditional mining and fishing industries.
The UK government’s 2016 Tech Nation report ranked the cluster of digital economy firms around the Cornish towns of Truro, Redruth and Camborne as the second fastest growing in the country, with turnover increasing 153% between 2010 and 2014. The Cornwall hub is still small, but its growth was outdone only by Southampton (180%) and ranked well ahead of London (101%) and better-known tech centres such as Cambridge and Bristol.
That growth has been spurred by continuing EU funding and the ability of local firms to attract and retain quality staff, thanks to an attractive lifestyle and one of the cheapest costs of living in Britain.
Mark Wilson, a director of the fast-growing online booking firm www.hoteldirect.co.uk, gives a simple answer when asked why his firm, which employs 25 people, has been based in Cornwall since the year 2000.
“Look around! It’s a beautiful place to be, and the advent of e-commerce made locating here possible.”
Wilson says a decades-long brain drain still sees young people leaving the county, but Toby Parkins, founder of software development outsourcing company Headforwards, says local firms are banding together to develop local skills and training.
“A year ago, about six companies formed a group called Software Cornwall as an industry body to attract people in the industry to the region and help members grow. Education is a big part of that – working in schools, giving kids work experience and running summer schools and courses to encourage them.
“We’ve now got 128 member companies, and there’s an unusually strong culture of co-operation in the industry here.”
Quality not quantity
Parkins, who has lived in Cornwall since the age of nine, says the county’s isolation encourages collaboration. “Everybody knows each other and there’s less direct competition in terms of products and competing to attract staff to the area. Everybody realises it’s easier to attract quality staff to the area if there’s a thriving sector rather than one company standing on its own.
“The reality of software development is that success does not depend on the volume of people you have but on the quality of those people and having them work in the right way.”
Software Cornwall estimates the number of information economy firms in the region rose from 445 in 2011 to 525 in 2014, and the Tech Nation report cited local expertise in data management and analytics, educational technology, and app and software development.
“If you shift here, you might get paid a bit less than in London but you’ll end up with a higher disposable income and a great quality of life”
Parkins proposed a local conference about the ‘agile’ approach to business and software development, and it was launched in 2011, once again backed by EU funds, provided because of Cornwall’s status as an economically struggling region with relatively low wages. ‘Agile on the Beach’ has since become a popular annual two-day conference with 350 attendees in Penryn, near Falmouth.
Its industry supporters have already helped Cornwall College improve its computer courses to match industry needs. Falmouth University has also set up a special academy concentrating on the computer games industry, but local employers say much more needs to be done on education and training.
The EU-backed Digital Peninsular Network helps its 700 member companies with training, lobbying and start-up funding, while the inward investment agency Invest In Cornwall uses funds from the EU and Cornwall Council to attract new firms to the region with ‘soft landing’ financial assistance packages, advice and other support, but Parkins says he does not expect many whole companies to move to the county.
“It’s difficult to get teams of knowledge-based workers and their families to just pick up and move so I think most of the future growth is going to be local companies expanding and outside companies deciding to set up a new team or project here.”
He says his own firm will grow from 65 employees to 100 by the end of this year.
“I was interviewing a young guy from London yesterday about a job and he said at the moment he has no disposable income. If you shift here, you might get paid a bit less than in London but you’ll end up with a higher disposable income and a great quality of life.”
Parkins is now trying to attract investment and more EU funding to create Fibre Park Digital Academy, a proposed business and education centre on a redundant part of Cornwall College’s Camborne campus, which would provide 150,000 square feet of offices and training space.
Locally born software developer Paul Massey says he would be interested in moving his company Bluefruit Software into the academy if it goes ahead. Massey’s business has grown by 50% a year since he launched it (as Absolute Software) in 2000, and his 34-strong team will soon outgrow its offices in nearby Barncoose.
His optimism is based on his judgement that it is no longer a disadvantage to be based in Cornwall rather than London, despite the fact that a meeting in London can still mean a 5am start for a five-hour drive, a flight or a train trip with unreliable internet connections.
“We already have customers moving to us from competitors in London and creative workers choosing to come here for the lifestyle and the fact that we have a more relaxed, less formal way of working.
“Hiring good people is a problem across the globe and Cornwall is a bit like the California of the UK – it’s beautiful and the sunniest part of the country.
“In a way, the digital industries here are a lot like Cornwall’s food and restaurant industry: they’re never going to be the biggest in the country, but quality counts and you can have a fantastic future by building a reputation for quality.”
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