Every summer, the eyes of tennis fans around the world turn to Merton, an affluent borough in south-west London. During this time, Merton enjoys a global television audience of an estimated 1.2 billion people. But few of these viewers know they are looking at Merton; in fact, it might be the most famous place most people have never heard of. The magnet for all this attention is Merton’s main hub, Wimbledon, which hosts the eponymous and iconic tennis tournament each year and which overshadows the surrounding areas.
While grateful to have within its borders such a household name, the Merton local council is hoping it can put the wider borough on the map, attract more investment and jobs, and spread prosperity more evenly.
“We are not as high profile as Westminster and other [London] boroughs but we have Wimbledon, which is an iconic postcode and that allows us to punch above our weight,” says council leader Stephen Alambritis. “We are trying now to bridge the income gap between the eastern and western halves of the borough.”
The espoused goal is to grow the local economy by creating 8000 jobs in 10 years, attracting more foreign and domestic companies into the borough, supporting the retention and growth of existing companies, fostering the development of local start-ups and investing heavily in regeneration for less glamorous parts of the borough such as Mitcham and Colliers Wood.
Wimbledon, in the west, is the business and employment hub of the borough and is where the foreign companies tend to focus their attentions. “Clearly the Wimbledon brand helps [in attracting investment], because companies want to be associated with that brand,” says Eric Osei, business growth officer at the Merton council.
‘Brand Merton’ enjoys less cache, but sky-high property prices in more desirable parts of London are driving younger and trendier residents to the area and making it more fashionable, while also offering an increasingly appealing young, educated local workforce. With a current population of roughly 200,000 people, Merton is seeing 10% per annum growth in its number of residents and the average age is being pushed down, according to Paul McGarry, head of futureMerton, the council's regeneration team.
Young and upwardly mobile
Fifty per cent of Merton’s working-age residents have at least degree-level qualifications – higher than the London average – and in Wimbledon this figure is even higher, at 63%. The employment rate already stands at 76%, also above the London average, and Merton is the only borough in south-west London experiencing employment growth. Even so, many of these new-to-the-neighbourhood young professionals still commute into central London and continue to head there for nightlife and leisure; local leaders are hoping that more of them will start working and playing closer to home.
In addition to attracting more multinational companies to add to the cluster of headquarter operations already present, there is increased focus on cultivating the small but fledgling start-up scene in Merton – anchored by local success stories such as Geeks Ltd, a software development company – as a means of providing interesting new local jobs that would appeal to the more youthful, tech-savvier demographic.
The council is also trying to improve local leisure facilities and retail offerings, to entice residents to stay in the area on evenings and at weekends. It is also giving some of the borough's dated-looking high streets a makeover. “We don’t want to just be a dormitory where people just come back home here to sleep. With this in mind, our leisure offer is getting better all the time,” says Mr Alambritis.