Regions in recession: is the worst over?

At the height of the downturn nearly two years ago, when the City and
London-based media were accused of inflating the situation, the UK200Group of
accountants and lawyers, with members throughout the regions, carried out its
own snapshot checks to assess the severity of the crisis.

Officially Britain’s economy pulled out of recession at the end of 2009, but
has the situation facing independent practices and their SME clients really
improved? Are firms around the country less worried about rising costs, less
spending power and lack of finance from banks?


The region is renowned for its many small and medium-sized businesses, but
also for many leading firms in such sectors as pharmaceuticals, biotech,
healthcare and hi-tech, environmental technology, aerospace and electronics –
Britain’s main export sectors. In 2008, the combined effect of the credit crunch
and rising inflation caused a progressive squeeze on sales and margins.

“Retailers began to see a dramatic slowdown in revenue,” says Jonathan
Russell, partner at Oxfordshire-based Rees Russell and vice president of the
UK200Group. “The building industry was being decimated. The government ploughed
a lot of money into the economy, but this hasn’t helped small businesses. Firms
generally are still worried about the economy. Banks are still not lending.”


Unemployment remains a worry, banks are still reluctant to lend, rising rates
are a barrier for start-ups and there is nervousness about what will happen
under a new government. The region is managing an investment of £230m of
European Union funds across all parts of South West England and Plymouth’s
position as a global centre of excellence for science, innovation and marine
energy research is receiving a major boost with the announcement of a £25m
investment plan.
Carmakers are turning the corner, the industry is coming out of intensive care,
but Midlands industry generally is still struggling, says Matin Smith, senior
partner at Dains, the largest independent firm of chartered accountants located
and operating in the West Midlands. “We are still busy with insolvency work.
Some of our biggest engineering and motor industry-related clients are

“Banks are still very tight, squeezing existing customers, inflicting higher
charges and not lending much. We don’t expect overall improvement for another
twelve months. People are wary, companies are cutting work hours or offering
sabbaticals to avoid losing skilled workers.”


North Yorkshire has suffered less. Tourism has been a major contributor.
“More people like going on short trips,” says David Ingall, a former president
of the UK200Group and senior partner at JWPCreers, with offices in Selby and
York. “This is an area of low cost housing, so people are not on the edge with
mortgages, and spending is less tight. I don’t think recovery is in sight for
several years, although I find the London media are still over-egging the
problems. Businesses here are pumping along. The employment situation is mainly
hitting school and university leavers, although I hear corporate finance
advisers in Leeds have had to cut back staff.”


Business in the region is still very patchy, says Mark Sharpley, partner at
Smailes Goldie in Hull. Employment is slightly down and would be more serious,
but for an explosion of public sector recruitment. Banks are still very hesitant
on lending, except to large businesses with a good track record. The good news
is that Nissan chose Sunderland to be the third base for its Leaf model.

Investment from government grants and loans from the European Investment Bank
should safeguard the jobs of 2,250 of its 4,000 strong Sunderland workforce.


Small businesses are holding on with reduced profits; some accountancy firms
have made more layoffs, although those which laid staff off earlier are now str
uggling to cope and are recruiting again. Larger companies don’t seem to have
relaxed their recruitment freezes, so it is hard for skilled people who have
lost their jobs to find alternative employment.

“I view this as an opportunity lost,” says Anne-Marie Naylor, senior partner
at Harts in Macclesfield. “Now could be the time to enhance the skills base of
businesses. Unemployment looks very likely to increase. Finance is available for
the right project, but banks are looking for security and very high margins.
Bank support for increased facilities has been good but short-term. Any
acquisitions are strategic by larger businesses with a war chest. The
construction industry is suffering from a triple whammy – a bumpy residential
property market, empty commercial developments and public sector financial


The downturn hit businesses in Wales badly. Consumer spending has been
severely hit, building projects have been stalled, with a multiple effect on
associated businesses and professional firms. Two years after the crisis
erupted, finance is still a major problem. “Banks are just not lending,” says
David Challenger, partner at Cardiff-based Watts Gregory. “Many businesses have
cash flow problems, but banks will not allow overdrafts. Some of our clients
have scaled down or are on short time. In the region generally more projects
have been mothballed or put on hold, which affects us too.”


The slowdown, which began to hit Scotland two years ago, is now beginning to
lead to recovery. Competitive exchange rates have been good for exports and for
tourism. The bad news is that, here too, funding is still very difficult.
According to Gordon Chalmes, director at Glasgow-based Wylie & Bisset.
“There’s little point putting companies into insolvency because few are able to
buy up assets, or to buy up any businesses. Sadly, personal insolvencies are


The slowdown has continued to affect investment and personal spending. The
stalling property market hurt estate agents, solicitors and builders, and is now
affecting retailers of furniture and furnishings, hardware and DIY, says Bill
Miscampbell, partner at W.J. Miscampbell, in County Antrim. “Banks heavily
exposed to property earlier are still very tight on lending. This year is going
to be harder than 2009.”

Wilf Altman, works with the UK200 Group.

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