The portrait of Isle of Wight (1999)
Authors: Mark Bobe, Louis Shurmer-Smith


The Isle of Wight, a unitary authority since 1997, lies off the South coast of England and is 36 kilometres East to West and 22 kilometres North to South. It is unique amongst the members of the South Coast Metropole being an island area rather than a city or borough. The island has an incredibly varied geology and landscape which, as now, attracted settlers from the Early Bronze Age and Roman times.



Alum Bay, Isles of Wight – Cristian Bortes, 2010 – Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr


It was during the 19th Century that the island became a popular tourist destination especially after Queen Victoria chose Osborne House on the island as her summer residence. Tourism remains a key element of the islands economy along with agriculture, marine engineering, electronics and aviation engineering. Of the islands principal towns, Freshwater, Yarmouth, Ryde, Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor, Newport at the centre of the island is the main centre and hub of the transport network.



Osbourne House – Loz Pycock, 2007 – Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons


The Isle of Wight Council administers an area of 380.21 square kilometres (Island Planning Unit) containing a population of 125 000 in 1995 (Kitt and Rowles, 1999, 7). The population of the island has grown by approximately 16.8 per cent between 1971 and 1995 and is forecast to grow by a further 2.4 per cent between 1995 and 2006 (Kitt and Rowles, 1999, 7). In contrast to other members of the South Coast Metropole the Isle of Wight as an administrative area encompasses a diverse range of land uses. The developed area of the island only covers 13.7 per cent of the land mass, agriculture is the dominant land use covering approximately 67.6 per cent of the land and forestry and woodland account for 8.5 per cent of the land mass.

Employment on the Isle of Wight is dominated by service sector employment however the largest single source of employment is in manufacturing accounting for 19.7 per cent of all employment (Kitt and Rowles, 1999, 13). Wholesale and retail enterprises employ 16.5 per cent of employees which is closely followed by health and social work (15.1 per cent), public administration (14.4 per cent) and hotels and catering (12.5 per cent). Overall service sector employment accounts for 71.6 per cent of total employment, manufacturing and construction 22.3 per cent and primary activities 0.7 per cent (Kitt and Rowles, 1999, 13).

The local economy

The changing structure of employment on the island presents a complicated picture of growth and decline in employment within certain economic sectors between 1993 and 1996 (Kitt and Rowles, 1999, 13). There has been a marked decline in the manufacturing of machinery and equipment (-55.5 per cent), employment in the utilities (-51.3 per cent) and agriculture (-51.3 per cent). Growth has however occurred in textile manufacture (200 per cent increase), food and consumables manufacture (152.7 per cent increase) and the manufacture of wood, timber and rubber (141.2 per cent increase), all within the manufacturing sector. However these increases are from a relatively low base level of employment which tends to distort the overall picture.

Change in employment in the service sector has seen increases in employment in financial and business services (20.9 per cent), transport and communications (7.6 per cent) and wholesale distribution (5.3 per cent). Decline in employment within the service sector has been most notable in health and social work (15 per cent decline), hotels and catering (10.4 per cent decline) and public services and administration (5.7 per cent decline).

Small and Medium sized enterprises (SMEs) dominate the economy of the island with only 13 enterprises in this category employing more than 200 workers; 78 per cent of all enterprises employ less than 10 workers (Kitt and Rowles, 1999, 12). The most important economic sector on the island is tourism which accounts for 24 per cent of GDP and 20 per cent of employment (Kitt and Rowles, 1999, 12). It is also worth noting that the Isle of Wight is home to a greater proportion of self employed workers (17 per cent) than the national average (11.5 per cent).

Business and commerce

The most important economic sector to the island is that of tourism and tourist services. Changes in the nature of tourism, the rise of the short and weekend break as opposed to week long seaside holidays (although the Isle of Wight still continues to attract a large number of tourists for a traditional seaside holidays) has meant some restructuring of the hotels sector on the island with a small increase in the number of such establishments between 1993 and 1996.

Manufacturing on the island continues to provide a large number of jobs many of which are concentrated in the high-tech aerospace and electronics sector. Companies such as GKN Westland, British Aerospace, SP Systems and Pascal Electronics continue to be of importance. However, the end of the Cold War and the rationalisation of electronics and aerospace enterprises has meant that there has been a decline in employment within these sorts of enterprises and there continues to be the threat of further downsizing due to accelerating merger and acquisition activity.


The Isle of Wight attracted over 2.7 million visitors in 1999 (Isle of Wight Tourism Press Release. 15/03/00) a figure that represents an annual growth of 4 per cent in the islands share of UK tourism. Growth has been achieved through an increase in short breaks business throughout the year, not just in the peak summer months. This has had a positive impact on employment on the island with the unemployment total remaining low through the winter and spring period.

During the latter part of 1999 and early 2000 visitor numbers were averaging approximately 30 000 per week (Isle of Wight Tourism Press Release. 15/03/00) with visitors on average for between 5.3 nights (peak season) and 3.4 nights (off season) compared to a Southern average of 2 nights.



Ventnor Beach, Isle of Wight – Skez, 2006 – Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons


Communicatinos to the mainland are dominated by ferry services, both possenger and vehicle ferries. High speed passenger ferries operate from Portsmouth to Ryde, Southampton to West Cowes (22 minutes) and a hovercraft service operates from Southsea to Ryde. Journey times are between ten and fifteen minutes. Vehicle ferries operate from Portsmouth to Fishbourne (35 minutes), Lymington to Yarmouth (30 minutes) and Southampton to East Cowes (one hour).

Rail services are confined to the east of island although rail links from Portsmouth Harbour Station provide and essential and efficient link to the mainland rail network. Travel times from the island to mainland stations are increased by the need to cross the Solent by ferry although London may be reached in two hours, Birmingham in three hours and fifty minutes and Bristol in three hours and five minutes.

Air services are extremely limited in the Isle of Wight with only two small private airfields. The island does however enjoy a close proximity to both Southampton Airport (for passenger travel) and Bournemouth Airport for primarily freight transportation.