Boston - Investing in skills, housing, and health will lead to growth
Situated on the coastline of the Wash, Boston is a historic market and port town in South Lincolnshire. It is the largest town in the wider Borough of Boston with a population of 46,506 compared to a population of 70,800 for the local authority district (*Population figures based on ONS 2020 mid-year estimates).
Boston's most important industries are food production, haulage, and logistics. The Port of Boston handles more than one million tons of cargo per year including the import of steel and timber and the export of grain. Other notable industries include shell fishing; light industry; and tourism. The town and port are relatively well connected by rail and by trunk roads including the A16 and the A52.
Figure 1: Travel to work areas in Lincolnshire
Source: ONS, 2016
The Boston Travel to Work Area (TTWA) expands the functional reach of the town’s economic geography beyond the local government boundary, although it is relatively self-contained, with the majority of people (82,478) both working and living within the area.
Boston, as defined by the local authority boundary, is home to approximately 35,000 jobs and 2,295 businesses. It is a rural district with some of the most fertile land in the UK. It has long been associated with the food sector and is considered a major growth area. The agri-food sector underpins the economy of the town, with 29% of local jobs in the sector compared to 4% nationally.
Boston is a strategic location for major national and international food businesses, including Bakkavor, Greencore, Green Yard Frozen Foods, Albert Barlett, JDM Food Group, Jakemans Confectionary, and also home to Agri-food supply chains including machinery & equipment manufacturing, research, cold storage, packaging, labelling, and logistics. Such companies include Port of Boston, Fountain Plants, Turners Distribution, Coveris, Reflex Labels, Alpego (UK) Ltd, T&B Containers, and Mastenbroek.
This economic activity is contributing over 1.5billion to the region’s GDP. Yet the town could go much further with the right conditions for growth. Boston has a very low level of business births, just over 20 per 10,000 population - a third of the England average - and has a very ‘static’ economy with a level of business ‘churn’ 50% less than the England average (ONS). Boston is also 18% points behind the national average when it comes to workers involved in Knowledge Intensive Businesses (KIBS). This reinforces the need to focus on upskilling and new technology to create higher-skills, higher-paying jobs.
The Town has already seen significant investments. A business-led consortium is leading plans to develop the Port of Boston as a specialist food port to support the food chain in South Lincolnshire and the wider region, with over 70,000 jobs in this sector across South Lincolnshire and the Fens.
Quality of life and affordability
The historic character of the town, the quality of the natural environment, schools of a generally high standard, low levels of crime, and good housing are important attributes that make Boston a desirable place to live and work.
Housing affordability has been an issue in Boston due to in-migration reducing the existing supply of available housing and driving up house prices and rents. Median house prices in Boston are almost 8 times the median wage, in line with the national average. A limited supply of new housing has increased reliance on the private rented sector to meet housing need amongst those who cannot afford to buy. The situation has levelled in recent years, but there is a need to address the increasing gap between household incomes and rising rents by building more affordable housing in the town and wider region.
The town is also struggling with its health outcomes and is in the lowest third of all areas in England for this indicator. Public services, including health, have faced unprecedented pressures resulting from a sharp increase in population caused by newcomers to the area that was neither planned nor predicted. Improving the quality of housing, schools, and health services is something which residents feel strongly about and will contribute significantly to the overall quality and wellbeing of the town.
Challenges and opportunities
1. Town Deal
In 2021, Boston secured £21.9M in Town Deal funding from the government to deliver an ambitious vision that will level up Boston and bring transformational improvements. The Boston Town Deal aims to make the town an exciting place to live, work, invest, and visit for generations to come. It will:
Support an aspirational, skilled, and healthy population
Create sustainable economic growth
Increase pride in place, and
Launch Boston into the future, building on its unique heritage.
Boston’s little known but internationally notable cluster of heritage buildings is testament to the town’s previous wealth. The Town Deal is an opportunity to rekindle this former status by encouraging new investment into the local economy.
The plan is to maximise the range and quality of jobs in the High Street and Heritage sectors and increase the number of people working in Knowledge Intensive Businesses, including the digital and learning sectors. This will help to begin future-proofing the retail core and town centre against the decline of the traditional high street-based offer. The plan will also contribute on the economic potential of - and strongly distinctive feature of - the port and its associated food and logistics sector as attraction for investment and bigger scale ventures.
2. The workforce and skills to drive economic growth
In recent decades Boston has depended on a high inflow of migrant workers, primarily from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe who have made their home in and around Boston. This has helped to combat the disadvantages of an ageing population. However, there are presently fewer people in the working age group (59.7%) than the national average (62.4%) which does not bode well for the productive capacity of the local workforce.
Boston has a low skilled population with 26.1% having a qualification at level 4 or above, significantly below the national average (43.5%). Low skills are contributing to low employment rates (70.2% compared to 74.8% nationally) and a relatively low waged economy, with resident earnings (£497.40) below the regional and national average (£628.6). Improving the skill levels among the resident population will be essential to achieving future economic growth.
Local education institutions are integral to this aspiration. Boston College is the fifth best college in the UK. Its new Engineering, Manufacturing and Technology Centre (EMAT) alongside a new Digital, Transport and Logistics Academy will provide the skills training to support agri-food and related logistics and transportation industries with a focus on digital innovation and technologies for the future.
The University of Lincoln and the National Centre for Food Manufacturing also support the delivery of skills development direct and to supply chains in the local and regional economy. The University is key to the new Food Enterprise Zone based at Holbeach, 10 miles from Boston creating high value food chain innovation and support services, pioneering research, skills provision, and knowledge exchange for agri-food businesses across Lincolnshire and beyond.
There is a need to develop STEM skills across the Boston area, which the introduction of T-Levels and Higher Technical Qualifications can help to address. There is also a need to increase aspiration and heighten career awareness of opportunities. By working collaboratively across the education system at all levels, and proactively engaging business to invest in their skills gaps, Boston can encourage and support the retention and growth of local businesses whilst raising the profile of the borough as a place to invest, live and work.
3. Transport and connectivity
Boston is served by relatively good transport links. The A17 corridor linking to the A1(M) to the west and east A47 to Norwich Research Parks, and the A16 road linking south to Peterborough, Cambridge and the M11 provides strong connectivity to the East of England.
However, problems with road congestion are already apparent and these are likely to increase in line with a rising working age population and increased commuter journeys. Car travel remains the dominant for of transport and there is a need to improve public transport use and to facilitate a high cycling use along key transport corridors. Reducing the adverse impacts of travel, particularly from private cars and road-based freight, while more efficiently connecting Boston to other centres will be important to sustainable growth.
Plans to improve local transport include: upgrades to existing bus stations to improve passenger experience with better waiting facilities and information; a new town centre public transport hub; and the introduction of measures that prioritise bus movements at congested locations, such as the A16 south of Boston; circular bus routes, which assists operators to run an efficient and punctual service; better bus provision to key employment areas, such as the Industrial Estates on Marsh Lane and Skirbeck Quarter to support shift workers during early and late hours.
Rail links to the town and the port are good. But there is a need for the Train Operating Companies and the Department for Transport to provide increased and more direct services to connect to wider destinations and to find ways to increase the use of rail to transport freight.
Development of the Port of Boston, connecting to local, regional, national and international markets is vital to the main export potential of Boston’s food production industries. Links to Rotterdam’s global food trading hub is a major opportunity for future UK food imports and exports. Boston is looking to trial Rotterdam feeder vessels (150-200 containers) to service local food manufacturers and supply chains including Freshlinc, Fowler Welsh (Culina), Turners Distribution.
Boston is a place which has the potential for strong sustainable growth. But as with many other small coastal towns, it has some challenges. These issues include low skill levels, housing affordability problems and considerable health inequalities. If Boston is to achieve its ambition to grow the economy, it will need to level up outcomes for the resident population while continuing to attract talent from outside the region.