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Southampton UK: 21st Century City Growth Fed by Location and Education

Water made this port city a global trading spot 500 years ago. In combination with its present-day universities, Southampton is rising to greater economic importance.

Since the Middle Ages, the deep water port of Southampton has benefited from its unique natural phenomenon of double-daily tides. This was due to its positioning relative to the English Channel, and proved to be an advantage for trade that enriched the South East England region back then as well as in modern times.

Southampton’s double luck, so to speak, happens in other forms today. Its commercial maritime economy is as thriving as ever in both cargo shipping and leisure travellers. But the tourists who arrive and depart by cruise ship also contribute heavily to the local economy. Investors, for the most part working through UK real asset fund managers, are developing this waterfront into a mecca for leisure and entertainment. Those funds also build flats for permanent residents plus commercial office space for enterprises that might also enjoy water vistas.

Putting assets into Southampton real estate may seem like an easy “no brainer,” given the vibrancy of the region. Lender HSBC advises that two or three factors – low property prices, a strong rental market and local universities – set up an environment where buy-to-let property owners can best prosper. In a 2013 study, the bank identified Southampton as the number one such market for residential investors in the UK. The cities of Blackpool, Kingston upon Hull, Manchester, Nottingham, Coventry, Slough, Oxford, Liverpool and Portsmouth followed.

Southampton’s universities play an important role. They include the University of Southampton and Southampton Solent University, which have a combined student population of 40,000. This also explains why a full quarter of the working population has a university degree, and why the city is the economic hub of the South Coast with more than 7,700 businesses providing 139,000 jobs.

The double-advantages of geography and an educated population play out in multiple ways:

Skilled engineers – The legacy of expertise in the maritime industry, fostered by courses of study at local universities, has drawn Lloyds Register (the global engineering, technical and business services firm) to relocate from London to Southampton in 2014.

Cruise lines and cargo – About one and a half million  passengers pass through this port on leisure cruise ships every year, making it northern Europe’s busiest cruising port. It is home to the world’s largest cruise ship, Independence of the Seas, which alone generates £50 million each year into the local economy while the leisure and commercial marine sector employs 38,000 people. More than 40 million tonnes of goods in and out of Southampton connect the UK with the global economy.

The International Boat Show – Europe’s largest boat exhibition, it is held every September and draws 120,000 visitors to see what 500 exhibitors have to offer in terms of powerboats, sailing yachts, catamarans and dinghies.

Technology – “Spin out” firms, using expertise from local universities, are creating jobs in medicine, health and life sciences, mineral exploration and electromagnetic imaging. Three such firms have a combined market value of £160 million on the AIM exchange – to draw this degree of capital, investors clearly are betting on enterprises that will grow.

Ocean exploration – Southampton Port hosts the National Oceanography Centre, where 500 scientists study climate, marine biology, geology and the chemistry of oceans.

Finance and investment in each of these areas is how they thrive. But to the investor who is interested in the real estate necessary to accommodate these enterprises – engaged, for example, in capital growth planning that convert disused UK land into functioning property – the opportunities abound. Even the high tech industry, which counts intellectual capital as its primary asset, still needs buildings in which to house workers and equipment.

All the factors that contribute to solid, sustainable growth and economic vitality seem present in Southampton. A report from Demos-PwC in 2012 (“Good Growth for Cities Index”) ranked the port city at number five out of all metros with a population of 250,000 or more. Rankings were based on jobs, income, health, housing, environmental stewardship, transport, income distribution and quality of life factors such as time spent with families.

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