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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 July 2006, 17:30 GMT 18:30 UK
How Cornwall's economy is fighting back
By Will Smale
Business reporter, BBC News, Cornwall

South Crofty tin mine
There are hopes to reopen one of Cornwall's old tin mines

The crumbled ruins of old tin mine towers that scatter the Cornish skyline stand as memorials to a once proud industry.

This used to be home to the world's biggest tin mining industry, a vital component of the UK economy that helped power the British industrial revolution.

The historical importance of the ruins was confirmed earlier this month when, together with similar old works across the border in Devon, they were granted World Heritage site status, joining such treasures as the Egyptian pyramids and the Taj Mahal.

Yet, while the recognition and preservation of Cornwall's heritage is welcome news, the county's former tin mining communities still have not fully recovered from the demise of the industry, which ended with the closure of the last remaining pit, South Crofty, in 1998.

So much so that together with the decline of Cornwall's fishing industry, the county remains the poorest in England.

This may come as a surprise to the hundred of thousands of tourists who flock to Cornwall's picturesque coastline each year, yet the annual gross domestic product in the region is just 65% of the UK average.

Hi-tech focus

The recent announcement of up to 700 job losses at Cornwall's largest private sector employer, China clay mining firm Imerys, has not helped matters.

But despite the blow at Imerys near St Austell, and ongoing pockets of poverty in the main former tin mining towns of Camborne and Redruth, a great deal of successful and forward thinking economic development work is continuing in Cornwall.

While still supporting our traditional industries, we realised we had to shift our game
John Berry, managing director of Cornwall Enterprise

Led by economic development agency Cornwall Enterprise, and helped by ongoing available European Union (EU) Objective One funds for Europe's poorest regions, the Cornish economy has long been growing faster than the UK average.

It may still be the weakest economy in England, but between 1994 and 2004 the Cornish economy grew at a rate of 5.8% per year, ahead of the UK average of 5.4%.

The most up to date official figures from Brussels go even further, saying that in 2003 the Cornish economy showed the greatest improvement of any region in whole of the EU.

Breaking the 'brain drain'

This fast-paced economic expansion has been led by a new generation of small but growing hi-tech and creative firms.

And there are even hopes to reopen one of the old tin mines to take advantage of the current high price of the metal on the global commodity markets.

John Berry, managing director of Cornwall Enterprise, explains that while the key focus is to help build up the knowledge-based economy and number of hi-tech or creative firms, its remit is to assist the whole spectrum of companies and industries, both new and traditional.

Treehouse designed by Sixixis
Sixixis makes everything from lamp shades to tree houses

"Mining is a very emotive subject for Cornwall," he says.

"It has been a core employer in parts of the county for hundreds of years, yet its decline reflects UK-wide pressures on traditional industries in the face of more competition from abroad.

"While still supporting our traditional industries, we realised we had to shift our game. We realised that boosting higher education and the knowledge-based economy were key."

To increase the provision of higher education in Cornwall, the universities that operate in the county, such as University College Falmouth and Exeter University, have joined forces to create the Combined Universities in Cornwall (CUC).

In addition to increasing the number of higher education places in the county, the CUC programme puts a renewed focus on helping graduating students set up their own companies in the county, or else securing employment at existing knowledge-based companies in Cornwall.

The overall aim is to reduce the traditional "brain drain" of graduates having to leave Cornwall to pursue their careers.

Quality of life

Sixixis is one such company that the CUC scheme has helped set up in the county.

Neutralize promotional picture
Neutralize helps firms improve their ratings on internet search engines

Founded by Falmouth graduates Chris Jarratt, Charlie Whinney and Tom Raffield at the start of this year, they use the power of steam to bend and shape Cornish oak and ash into distinctive handmade furniture.

"We were coming to the end of our course and knew we wanted to establish our own company in Cornwall," says Mr Jarratt.

"It is exciting to set up your own business, and we all love it in Cornwall. The quality of life down here is excellent."

With easy access to its countryside, beaches and surf is an almost universal theme when you speak to business people in Cornwall, be they locals or inward investors.

And since the advent of broadband, which now has 100% coverage in Cornwall, hi-tech firms in the county say they have no need to be any closer to London or other main cities.

One such hi-tech firm in Cornwall is Neutralize, a computer sector company that specialises in helping businesses improve their placing on internet search engine results.

From a Cornish business park, Neutralize works for such blue chip clients as the London Stock Exchange.

"We were in London before, but it was too expensive," says co-founder Edward Cowell.

"I grew up in Cornwall and wanted to come back.

"It's no disadvantage to be down here, most of our communication with clients, for example, is done by email anyway."

Global tin demand

While Cornwall continues to see a growth in successful hi-tech or creative businesses, for others the call of tin mining continues to burn strongly.

Businessman Kevin Williams is leading efforts to reopen the Soft Crofty pit.

His company, Baseresult, bought the disused site in 2001 and is currently seeking planning permission to reopen the mine and create 200 jobs.

"There is still 80 years of tin down there using modern production methods," he says.

"We will sell it on the world commodity markets where the price is currently very high thanks to strong demand led by China."

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