The evidence is seen in figures for increases in population, which are above national rates, and in levels of output and earnings, which have held their own against national averages.
There is a view that the growth in population in the three counties has been driven by a strong flow of retirement migrants. This is only partly true. While the overall population growth is due to migration rather than indigenous growth, only one third has been due to retirement migration.
In Somerset, the proportion of the population of pensionable age in 1996 was 22%. This compares with 22.7% in Devon and 22.9% in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. These statistics are slightly higher than the figure for the UK (18.1%) and the south-west region as a whole (21.2%).
Certain parts of the three counties have high proportions of elderly people – over 30% for Devon and Somerset – with services to support this retired population. In the remaining areas households are linked into an economy which has to look outward for its basic markets.
Tourism and agriculture are two key components of that outward looking economy. Both sectors are under pressure to diversify their range of customers.
Income from tourism is much more important to the economies of Devon and Cornwall than Somerset. However, the challenge for all three counties is to hold on to their share of the UK's tourist and leisure expenditure. Shifting trends in British holiday patterns, particularly the decline of the traditional long seaside vacation and the focus on overseas breaks, have worked against the south-west.
As a result, employment in tourism-related industries fell by 2.2% in Devon and 10.2% in Cornwall between 1991 and 1995. The decline was most marked in full-time rather than part-time jobs – against the national trend. The sector employs more than 60,000 workers in more than 7,700 tourism-related businesses.
The local authorities are addressing the issue of competition for the tourist pound. Their efforts are being undertaken in partnership with local and national businesses and with funding from national government agencies and Brussels.
The authorities intend to improve marketing and develop high-profile projects and initiatives. The aim is to achieve diversification by building on traditional markets to open up new types of visitor activity.
An example of a marketing partnership is the Devon and Cornwall Overseas Marketing group (DACOM). It brings together the county and district councils, some 500 businesses and 'Prosper' – a merger of the Devon and Cornwall Training & Enterprise Council (TEC) and the Business Link for the two counties. With pooled resources supported by the European Regional Development Fund and a marketing budget of £500,000, Prosper targeted prospective tourists in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Ireland in 1997.
Visitor initiatives included the Tarka Project in north Devon, which brought in an estimated 488,000 extra tourist nights according to the TEC. It generated £18.7m of expenditure and supported the creation of 500 jobs. Similarly, the South West Coast Path Project attracts more than one million visits annually, giving a £15m benefit to the local economies and generating over 800 jobs.
Other programmes include the South Devon Green Tourism Initiative and the Dartmoor Area Tourism Initiative.
New tourist attractions include the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth and the Eden Project in Cornwall. But the top attraction in 1999 will be the total eclipse of the sun, expected to attract up to half-a-million visitors to Cornwall. Many hotels and boarding houses are already fully booked.
Agriculture and fishing
Several factors have affected the agriculture and fishery sectors of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, including: restrictions on fishing from the Common Fisheries Policy of the European Union; the BSE crisis; changes in agricultural support policies affecting dairy farmers; and the impact of the strong pound on cereal producers.
The sectors account for 3.8% of employees in Cornwall, 2.7% in Devon and 3.9% in Somerset. This compares with 1.3% in the UK as a whole in 1996. Between 1984 and 1995, full-time male employment in agriculture fell by 12.7% in Devon and Cornwall.
However, these figures are deceptive as they represent employees, omitting the self-employed, and they do not allow for the use of contractors. Income from farming, forestry, horticulture and fishing is still very important to the more rural parts of the three counties.
As elsewhere in rural Britain, support for diversification strategies is being offered to farmers in areas such as fish-farming, organic production, the letting of buildings and product processing.
The key to success here, as in the tourism sector, is to ensure that diversification is demand-led, accompanied by investment in marketing, often on a collaborative basis. The 'Cornish King' quality trade mark is an example.
The size of the fishing fleet in the south-west, in terms of jobs and vessels involved, has been shrinking in recent years. The major fishing ports by weight of landings are Newlyn, Brixham and Plymouth. Much of the processing, however, takes place outside the region. And there is concern about what will happen to the industry after 2002, when the present Common Fisheries Policy of the EU will end. New markets are needed in this sector to maintain incomes.
Peter Townroe, visiting Professor, Sheffield Hallam University