Hunts economy recovering cautiously, experts agree

CAUTIOUSLY optimistic signs are starting to emerge from Huntingdonshire s economy, as business leaders predicted three months ago, according to the district council s economic development team. Although the number of workers displaced to Jobseeker s Allow

CAUTIOUSLY optimistic signs are starting to emerge from Huntingdonshire's economy, as business leaders predicted three months ago, according to the district council's economic development team.

Although the number of workers displaced to Jobseeker's Allowance doubled in a year, it was from a very low base, and unemployment here is well below both the regional and national averages. The number out of work has also fallen slightly in recent months, and there are signs that employers are starting to have the confidence to recruit once again, a spokesman for the HDC team said this week.

"We are slightly cocooned compared with some neighbouring districts such as Peterborough because of the diversity in our economy," he said.

"Our claimant ratio has gone up to 2.8 per cent from 1.4 per cent in August 2008. But that compares with 3.5 per cent across the East of England and 4.1-4.2 per cent nationally. That's not a massive number, but it's little compensation if you are one of the 1,500 who no longer have a job.

"It's nothing to be singing about, but by comparison with the national and regional position it could be much worse."

HDC said companies had consolidated during the downturn and had been taking advantage of changes in exchange rates that made exports more competitive. "They have managed to come through - some have actually managed to do quite well, but there are still mixed messages out there.

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"But we are noticing a slow-down in the bad-news stories, but access to finance to SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] is still a big issue.

"A lot of firms had been holding their breath on recruitment, but we are now seeing an increasing level of confidence."

He said the knowledge-based elements of Huntingdonshire's were increasingly buoyant, and advantage has been taken of the downturn by both trainers and displaced employees to increase skill levels.

"It's still a bit tentative, but in the right direction. A lot more needs to be coming from the banks, particularly at the smaller end of the company spectrum."

John Bridge, chief executive of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire Chambers of Commerce, agrees. "In spite of all the rhetoric, the reality is that businesses of all sizes are finding it more difficult to get the credit facilities that they need. The banks have changed the criteria and are rebuilding their balance sheets with the money they should be lending to sound companies," he told The Hunts Post.

But he believes the downturn has not been all bad news. "When times are tough, it brings out the best in businesses because they have to focus. From the awards entries [Mr Bridge is chairman of the panel of independent judges for The Hunts Post Huntingdonshire Business Awards] it's clear that firms have been very innovative in dealing with the situation.

"What we are really seeing is the quality of the businesses we have in Huntingdonshire, and there's little doubt that they are performing far better than companies in many other parts of the country because they respond innovatively and read their markets better."

Another of the judges, Business Link East adviser Dominic O'Sullivan, adds late payments by large companies to small suppliers and the risk of recovery-fuelled inflation if recovery is not properly managed to things Huntingdonshire companies need to be wary of.

"We are not out of the woods yet, but we are certainly beyond rock-bottom and there's an excellent chance it will keep going," he added. "But it will be a hard recovery.

"In the last quarter of last year and the first quarter of this year, most of our work was in health checks on companies that were having problems. Now it's about marketing and training as confidence returns and firms look to the future. Most of our marketing courses are over-subscribed. But we have got to watch inflation when confidence follows us back to the wider economy.