What sort of recession is this anyway? A view from Southend

Mark Pack asked this very question – What sort of recession is this anyway? – on LDV the other day. Yesterday, the IMF offered a top down view which is frankly frightening.

My political activity began in the economic chaos of the early Thatcher years and I live in fear of a return to the levels of unemployment of the 1980s. How does it look from Southend?

Immediately after selection as Liberal Democrat candidates for the two Southend consituencies, Graham Longley and I decided to find out for ourselves. We used the party’s small business survey as a basis for this, and have – with a crowd of volunteers – taken it to many of the shopping and business areas of the town. This Friday and Saturday we will have a big push to complete the survey (drop me a line on [email protected] if you would like to join us). And the survey is now going on-line (so if you are reading this, and run a business in Southend, click here, and spend a few minutes filling in the form).

Some of the stories we have heard are harrowing. One small family partnership explained how the decline in business of the last few months had hit them. It meant that they were in danger of losing not just their life savings, but their hopes and dreams for the future.

What is happening on the High Street is going to feed back into employment, and into the income of the lower paid. Of the first 100 forms returned, more than 40 told us that they had either laid staff off, or reduced hours. And those telling us that there had been no impact on the workforce include a large number of one-person businesses: whose hours were they going to cut?

Are there any “green shoots” out there? Precious few. There are many businesses who claim to be unaffected – but they often write an additional word onto their survey form: “yet”. There are a few who are doing better as a result of the credit crunch – chiefly those businesses which repair, recycle, or refill. Some restaurants tell us that the number of customers they serve has not declined much – but that customers are much less inclined to order the more expensive items on the menu.

The one thing that almost everyone agrees is on is that the 2.5% VAT cut has been at best useless, and at worst an expensive distraction. Predictably the banks and Gordon Brown get most of the blame. But there is also anger at landlords who are unrealistic about rents, and prepared to leave shops empty for long periods.

Despite the gloomy replies, this has been a rewarding activity. Why?
> First we have made a commitment to listening. We have a number of small business owners in the ranks of Southend Liberal Democrats but, individually and collectively, we are learning a great deal about the pressures local businesses face.
> Second we have seen how keen many businesses are keen to pass this information to Vince Cable (I have never known such a high percentage of people complete and return a survey form). Many, many see Vince as the politician who speaks for them on the economy.
> And finally, we have shown that we care and made many new friends.

Times are tough out there, but the shopping streets of Southend do not resemble “desolation row”. This recession has not led us to the misery of the Thatcher years. Not (as so many have written on their survey forms) yet.

* Peter Welch is the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Spokesman for Southend West, and blogs at peterwelchsouthendwest.blogspot.com.

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3 Comments

  • “But there is also anger at landlords who are unrealistic about rents, and prepared to leave shops empty for long periods.”

    Hope you told them about the Lib Dem fiscal solution to this, which would automatically lower ALL rents while increasing revenue for public services and which, extended to housing, could have prevented the debt-funded asset boom that caused the crash in the first place?

  • Andrew Duffield 29th Jan '09 - 10:35pm

    Sorry, that was me. But you probably knew that.

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