Tuesday, 01 September 2015

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Business leaders greet 2013 with cautious optimism

CUMBRIAN businesses are looking to the New Year with cautious optimism.

Given that the county has weathered the downturn better than much of the UK, the consensus is that 2013 can be a year of modest growth.

The most bullish of the people we spoke to was Steve Errington, managing director of Story Homes in Carlisle.

It has ongoing schemes at Carlisle, Wigton and Dearham, another at Appleby has just received planning consent while other sites in Carlisle, Scotby and Dalston are in the pipeline.

Mr Errington said: “We have quite an aggressive expansion plan in Cumbria and beyond.

“We expect to build between 150 and 160 homes in the year ending March 31, between 250 and 275 in 2013-14, 400 to 450 the year after, and 500 to 600 the year after that.”

Story Homes sees an opportunity in the difficulties afflicting the construction sector. Mr Errington added: “The industry is building less than half of what the country needs and the region needs in terms of new homes.

“There is still a lot of opportunity if you have the right product and the right locations. We have a great product.”

Andrew Tinkler, chief executive of the logistics giant Stobart Group, hopes that 2013 will be the year that its plans to redevelop Carlisle Airport take off.

The scheme has planning consent in principle but has yet to be signed off and could face a legal challenge.

He said: “I’d like to think that this is the year that something happens. It’s on our agenda.”

Like many businesses, Stobart has reduced its costs and has emerged from the recession leaner and fitter.

Mr Tinkler said: “You have to be optimistic.

“I’m sure 2013 is going to be tough. It’s still very slow and we need some growth in the economy.

“But I am really pleased with where we are as a business and where we are positioned.

“We have got good systems and robust management that will allow us to grow.”

Rob Johnston, chief executive of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, agrees that the Government could do more to stimulate the economy.

He said: “A school report for the Government would say, ‘disappointing, must try harder’.

“While it’s absolutely right to continue with a robust deficit reduction programme, much more needs to be done to boost the economy – not least business confidence.

“We’ve been working hard with partners to make the most of what’s been made available so far.

“We go into 2013 with a co-ordinated package of support for businesses, centred around Cumbria Business Growth Hub, drawing in advice, grant support, international trade, start-up support, apprenticeships and more.

“This should provide a real boost to Cumbria in the coming year.”

Retailers have had a difficult 2012. Christmas figures were initially disappointing although a strong showing last weekend helped to make up lost ground.

David Jackson, commercial director of The Lanes shopping centre in Carlisle, said: “This year has been tough.

“While we’re by no means out of it, I would like to think that the brakes will start to ease and we’ll get some momentum back into the retail economy.

“I’m looking for some growth next year, not just within Carlisle and The Lanes but within retailing generally.

“Given that some retailers have gone – the likes of Comet and Best Buy disappeared in 2012 – it does mean there are fewer players in the market place competing for the available spend.”

Stephen Sewell, a director of Carlisle chartered surveyor Walton Goodland, sees signs of life in the commercial property market too.

He said: “We are four years post the property market crash and, while there appears no immediate end, the last 12 months have seen the beginnings of a change in sentiment.

“It is good to see new tenants continuing to emerge, particularly at the lower end of the commercial market, with a can-do attitude while taking advantage of more favourable rents and lease terms.

“Landlords have in many cases accepted the realism that commercial values and rents have fallen.

“This correction provides continued optimism for the New Year.”

He added, however, that the Government’s determination to pursue landlords for rates on vacant commercial buildings and the decision to postpone the next rating revaluation were “stifling” the market.

Keith Jackson, a researcher at the University of Cumbria’s Centre for Regional Economic Development, expects 2013 to be another difficult year.

He said: “I don’t want to sound like an angel of doom but it’s going to be more of the same, perhaps slightly better. The economy will bump along the bottom.

“If we get a good summer, the hospitality and retail sectors might to do better than expected.

“The county does seem to be holding its own. Cumbria has a lot of small businesses and they tend not to lose people as quickly as a large business would.

“Hopefully, that will continue.”

Dr Joe Hendry, the Labour leader of Carlisle City Council, is positive about the outlook for local businesses despite his misgivings about the Government’s austerity programme.

He points to Bendalls’ recent success in winning work in the nuclear industry, Carlisle College’s expansion plans and the University of Cumbria’s new business interaction and development centre at Paternoster Row.

Dr Hendry said: “Carlisle and north Cumbria seems to be holding its own.

“I would urge everyone in this city to continue to work together in what may be a very difficult year in 2013.

“I am particularly concerned for our youngsters. We need to create more apprenticeships and the happiest Christmas we could give our young people is the prospect of a job in 2013.”



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