Gloucestershire, United Kingdom
Gloucestershire – population 646,627 (ONS, 2021), is an administrative county in south‐west England, located on the border with Wales. It lies north of the largest regional city, Bristol (population 465,000), and about 160km west of London. Gloucestershire covers an area of 2,653 km2 (1,024 square miles) and has a population density of 244 people per km2 (ONS, 2021).
Gloucestershire’s government structure is ‘two‐tier’: Gloucestershire County Council has strategic responsibilities including education (schools), libraries, flood risk planning, highways and transport planning and other public services. The county is composed of six Districts, each with a District Council of elected members having authority for local responsibilities including waste/recycling and spatial planning. In turn, Districts are composed of numerous smaller towns and parishes (municipalities – the lowest level of local government).
Gloucestershire has a polycentric urban pattern, with two adjacent urban centres – the administrative capital Gloucester city (population 132,416) and the former spa Cheltenham town (118,800) – which together account for c.40% of the county’s population. There is a third urban district, Tewkesbury (94,900). The three remaining rural districts are Stroud (121,100), Cotswold (90,800) and the Forest of Dean (87,000). Population increased in all Gloucestershire districts, 2011-2021.
Living Lab transitions
A growing County, and an ageing population
Between 2011 and 2021, the population of Gloucestershire grew by an estimated 44,411, with almost 6,000 growth in the year 2020-2021 (0.9%/year, which is 0.1% higher than the average growth rate for the 2011-2021 period (0.8%).
However, Gloucestershire’s population is ageing more quickly than the UK average. By 2043 42% of households are projected to include someone aged 65+ compared to 33% of households in 2018.
The County is predominantly rural with two urban centres that serve as the main business and commercial heartland. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Gloucestershire was an estimated £20 billion (€22.5bn) in 2020 (ONS, 2021). Gloucestershire’s GDP growth between 2019 and 2020 was -1.2%, reflecting the severe impact of the Covid pandemic.
The Health industry is the largest economic sector in Gloucestershire measured by employment, accounting for 14.0%. Other major sectors include Manufacturing (over 10%), Financial & Insurance (3%) and Information and Communication (4%). Gloucestershire’s unemployment rate is 3.3% (2022), below the 5.2% average rate for England. 12.8% of those in work are self-employed.
There were 29,405 registered businesses operating in Gloucestershire in 2022, Key industrial sectors include hi‐tech manufacturing, health, public administration and defence, retailing, education and construction. 83% of residents in Gloucestershire also work in the county, showing high reliance on local jobs by county residents in both urban and rural areas. In the rural areas, tourism is a notable feature – the Cotswolds has an international reputation as a destination, and Cheltenham hosts many festivals including major horse racing, jazz and literature events each year. Small-scale manufacturing and the service economy are also notable rural sectors.
Gloucestershire is not a very poor county by comparison with the rest of the UK, nevertheless, 12 local areas (small groups of municipalities) fall into the most deprived 10% in the UK, measured by the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD). At District level, on average the most deprived districts in the County (which are Gloucester City and Forest of Dean) fall in the middle values (40-60%) for deprivation, of all 317 Districts in England. Tewkesbury, Cotswold, and Stroud districts are in the least deprived 20%, with Cheltenham in the 20-40% band.
Food and farming
Farming in Gloucestershire is very mixed, with all main sectors represented: livestock (beef, sheep, dairy, pigs and poultry), cereal crops and horticulture; reflecting its varied topography and soils. This has produced a mosaic of hedged and walled fields, as well as small woodlands, across the county. About 250,000 hectares ‐ 75% of the land area ‐ is managed as commercial farmland on around 3,000 agricultural holdings. 59% of farmland is owner-occupied, and the County has several large estates with rented farms. 60% of land on farms is grassland, 25% cereals, 13% woodland/other and under 1% horticulture.
Almost 6,300 people are directly employed in agriculture (included in the employment total above). Average holding size is around 50 hectares but as for England as a whole, this average mask significant polarisation between many small uncommercial/amenity holdings and fewer, larger commercial farms typically of 100-300 hectares or more. In the UK as a whole, agriculture employs under 2% of the workforce and generates around 0.5% of GDP – the figures for Gloucestershire are only slightly higher than these averages. However, Collison (2019) briefly assessed the value of the farming and food and drink sectors in the county; and estimated the agri‐food and environment (land-based) sectors as employing over 50,000 people (c.15% of the workforce) and, in 2017, generating £1.39bn gross value-added (GVA), c.9% of the county’s GVA. Growth potential for the sector was identified in line with the county’s growing tourism sector, as well as from digitalisation in food chains which is stimulating ‘reshoring’– more national rather than global supply chains, supported by IT innovations [it should be noted that UK food supply chains are concentrated – 5 major retail firms sell over 95% of all fresh produce to consumers].
Key challenges in respect of socio-economic transition are ageing population, rural isolation, poor public transport in rural areas, income inequalities leading to lack of affordable housing (for those on average income) and lack of accessible services (especially for people without a car).
The physical geography of Gloucestershire has three main features: the valley of the rivers Severn and Wye divides the county on a north-east to south-west axis. West of this is the high ground of the ancient Forest of Dean, with a history of mining for coal and minerals. To the east, rising dramatically as a wooded limestone escarpment, are the Cotswold Hills and high plateau, with shallower, stony soils.
Over half the county lies within the national landscape designations ‘Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ (AONBs). By far the largest of these is the Cotswold AONB, with 2 cross‐border AONBs – the Wye Valley in the west and the Malvern Hills to the north-west. The Forest of Dean is a ‘National Forest Park’ which straddles the River Severn estuary and the Anglo‐Welsh border. The River Thames rises in the east of the county. Gloucestershire also contains many ecological, historical and geological areas of national importance, such as its 120 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (GWT,2015).
The county’s water courses include the Severn, Britain’s longest river, and the Thames which rises in Gloucestershire: these connect to some of the densest urban settlements in England (Birmingham and London). The River Wye marks the border between England and Wales and flows into the Severn Estuary. The upper Severn Estuary has one of the highest tidal ranges in the world and is of national and international importance for its marine, intertidal and wetland biodiversity. It has Ramsar designation, covering 4,860 ha, also a Special Conservation Area and Special Protection Area (Natural England, 2012). Increased frequency and severity of flooding, and potential rise in sea levels due to climate change, are a major risk factor for the county, as its larger settlements are low-lying and close to floodplains.
ICT connectivity has received major investment in recent years to enhance rural broadband connections. However, there are many parts of the county where internet speeds are low and mobile signals not guaranteed. 96.49% of business premises in Gloucestershire have access to Superfast (>=30 Megabits per second (Mbps)) broadband connectivity, consistent with the national average across England (96.96%). National aspirations for digital connectivity are now linked to supporting Gigabit connectivity. Within Gloucestershire, only 57.5% of properties have access to Gigabit-supported digital infrastructure, whereas, in England, average access is 66.14%: this reflects Gloucestershire’s rural character. The Fastershire project managed a subsidised roll-out of digital infrastructure in Gloucestershire and neighbouring Herefordshire, in recent years.