Our Man in Westminster
IHAVE been visiting a number of companies around Ashford in recent weeks to take the temperature of local business as the recession bites. One in the financial sector observed sadly that he had been joking for a year that joining the recession was not compulsory but now had to admit that it was. This all-embracing gloom was relieved by a few glimpses of sunshine. One of the things people seem determined to hang on to, however difficult the economic environment, is the ability to go out to eat and drink. So pubs and restaurants are reasonably cheerful. However this “normal” behaviour of consumers does not seem to be spreading to local shops, many of whom are reporting a downturn which is the worst in 30 years. I have heard retailers use phrases like “absolutely frightening” to describe the conditions. Anecdotally, the only shops which seem to be busier than ever are the pound shops, they offer people a bargain and in current circumstances they will take it. The VAT cut has made no apparent difference to sales. As for other sectors, the picture is mixed. Some firms have sensibly worked out that the public sector is more likely to provide work for contractors than the private sector over the next couple of years, so are skewing their business in that direction. Others are finding that repair work is much in demand while people wait nervously to see what happens next. As for the banks, I have heard some surprisingly warm words from businesses about their own bank but the general picture is of decisions to lend being deferred as long as possible. The banks may have been rescued with our money but for many businesses in Ashford the credit crunch is still very much with us.