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


The City of Portsmouth, a unitary authority since April 1st 1997, is located on Portsea Island bounded to the East by Langstone Harbour, to the West by Portsmouth Harbour and to the South by the Solent and the Isle of Wight. Originally settlement was concentrated on the site now occupied by Portchester Castle at the Northern end of Portsmouth Harbour and first enters the historical record as a Roman coastal fortress and port. The first major development on Portsea Island did not occur until 1194 when King Richard 1 (Coeur de Lion) granted a charter for the establishment of a settlement.



Old Portsmouth, View from Spinnaker Tower toward Portsmouth Cathedral and Southsea – eNil, 2007 – Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons


The sea, and particularly the Royal Navy, has dominated the development of Portsmouth from its foundation in the 12th Century, through the establishment of the Naval Dockyard in 1496 and its expansion during the 17th Century. Whilst the decline of the Royal Navy following the end of the Cold War has reduced the importance of the Navy and Dockyard to Portsmouth, it remains, along with tourism, one of the primary employers in the city.

Economically the city has seen a remarkable growth in employment attributable to the University of Portsmouth, the expansion of the ferry-port, and employment in high technology industries.

The City of Portsmouth has been a unitary authority since April 1997, prior to this date certain key administrative functions of the city were shared with Hampshire County Council. Whilst largely independent for administrative purposes the city remains in the county of Hampshire. Portsmouth has a population of approximately 189 000 (1998) and administers an area of approximately 41.95 square kilometres which means Portsmouth is the most densely populated district in Great Britain (over 4 500 persons per square kilometre) outside of Inner London (1998).

The local economy

Portsmouth has suffered more than many other areas over the last 20 years as the UK has effectively de-industrialised and moved further towards a service based economy. The decline of the defence sector, especially since the end of the Cold War, has seen a large reduction in employment in the armed services, the dockyard and associated defence industries. New employment growth has tended to be concentrated within the relatively low-paid, often part-time tourism and retail sectors.

Employment in Portsmouth is dominated by the service sector which accounts for 79.3 per cent of all employment (Annual Employment Survey 1996). Within the service sector it is public administration, education and health that provides the largest volume of total employment accounting for approximately 31.9 per cent of total employment, this is followed by distribution, hotels and catering (20.5 per cent) and banking, finance and insurance (17.7 per cent). Manufacturing employment remains important to the local economy providing 17.3 per cent of all local employment.

Business and commerce

Major employers in the city are primarily engaged in high technology manufacture or service sector functions, many of which are either still engaged in, or have historically been involved with, defence related production and development. Portsmouth is the UK headquarters for IBM (computers) and Zurich Insurance, it is also home to GEC (electronics and telecommunications), Alenia Marconi Systems (electronics), Vosper Thornycroft (marine construction), Raytheon Marine (marine electronics), Lockheed Martin (aerospace and electronics), De La Rue Systems (cash machines and EFTPOS equipment), British Aerospace (aerospace and electronics) and Panasonic GSM (mobile personal telecommunications).

Rents on commercial premises in Portsmouth are substantially lower than in other locations within the south-east of England. On average city centre office accommodation is 80 per cent cheaper than Southampton (Portsmouth City Council, 1999), factory and warehouse accommodation is however only 5-10 per cent cheaper than Southampton. Both cities tend to be cheaper overall than competing locations such as Brighton, Reading and Guildford.

The focus of economic development in the city is currently the 100 million Gunwharf Quays development on the harbourfront and the 100 million Renaissance of Portsmouth Harbour Project. Gunwharf Quays is a mixed retail (approximately 17 000 square metres), leisure (approximately 17 000 square metres), office (approximately 1 000 square metres) and housing development alongside Portsmouth Harbour on former Ministry of Defence Land. The Renaissance of Portsmouth Harbor involves Portsmouth City Council and Gosport Borough Council in a public and private sector project to renovate and a open up the areas around Portsmouth Harbour. This scheme has various elements, including the construction of a Millennium Tower (renamed Spinnaker Tower) on the Portsmouth side of the harbour. Overall the project is intended to increase visitor numbers to the area to approximately 6 million per annum and to increase tourist spending by an extra 50 million along with 3 500 new jobs.



The Spinnaker Tower from the Gosport Ferry – Unisouth, 2007 – Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons


Portsmouth also markets itself as a tourist destination The Flagship of Maritime England and is home to HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, The Mary Rose and the Royal Naval Museum all situated in the historic dockyard. The city is also home to the Royal Marines Museum, Southsea Castle (a Henrician Device Fort), the D-Day Museum and Sea Life Centre all of which are located in Southsea, the resort part of Portsmouth.


The largest educational establishment within the City of Portsmouth is the University of Portsmouth (the University is also the fourth largest employer in the region with an annual turnover of 82 million) which has over 17 000 full-time and part-time students supported by approximately 1 000 staff. The University in includes the Portsmouth School of Art, Design and Media and contributes in excess of 60 million per annum into the local economy. Further education provision within the city is provided by Highbury College, the third largest college of its type in the South East of England.


Portsmouth is unique amongst members of the South Coast Metropole in having a variety of sea-based transport links together with good road and rail links to the rest of the country. There are regular ferry services to the Isle of Wight for both passengers and vehicles, passenger services to Hayling Island and Gosport, services to Jersey and Guernsey and international services to France (Le Havre, Caen, Cherbourg, St Malo) and Spain (Bilbao, Santander). The volume of traffic, both for passengers and freight makes Portsmouth the second busiest port in the country.

Road connections from Portsmouth to the rest of the UK are excellent as the city has easy access to the main south coast trunk road, the A27 (running in various guises from Kent in the East to Devon in the West), the A3 to London via Guildford and the M3 (Basingstoke, the M25 and London) and A34 (Newbury, the M4, Oxford and the Midlands) accessed via the M27 Portsmouth to Southampton. Travel times (depending on road conditions) are relatively swift with London being accessible in one hour 25 minutes, Birmingham in two hours 50 minutes and Bristol in one hour 55 minutes. Access to the Channel Tunnel is possible in between two and three hours.

Rail links between Portsmouth and the rest of the UK are favourable, London is accessible in one hour 20 minutes, Southampton in 35 minutes and Birmingham in four hours 30 minutes. Most rail connections for the North of England are via London although over recent years new direct services to the North West of England (Manchester and Liverpool) have been established.

Whilst Portsmouth no longer has an airport of its own it maintains excellent communications with major airports in the south of England such as Heathrow, Gatwick and Southampton. All three airports are readily accessible by public transport either by road, rail or a combination of the two. Heathrow and Gatwick airports can be accessed by car in approximately one hour 20 minutes, Southampton in 25 minutes.


EnlargeView of Portsmouth and Portsea Island from Portsdown Hill – Alan Ford, 2005