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Green shoots in the garden ... or just weeds?

Dave Harvey | 15:52 UK time, Monday, 6 July 2009

It's like an allotment in April. Eager grow-your-owners rush down after school to see if the sweetcorn is up yet. "Look look, here's a shoot! Or is it a weed?".

Next day the first tiny shoots have been caught by frost or squashed by a nosy badger.

Brendan Barber

The latest badger in the business news is Brendan Barber. The TUC's General Secretary says the recession will be long, deep and cold. Colder even than the 1980s. "Beware talk of green shoots", Mr Barber warned.

But then two respected bodies have both said "the worst is over". CBI boss Richard Lambert used those exact words in a report last week. And the
National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) came to the same conclusion a few weeks before that.

Everyone has their own dipsticks for spotting the recovery. City pundits fancy the Baltic Dry Index; others count the queues at the JobCentre. What's your favourite?

Mine is inexplicable optimism on the High Street.

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And on my walk to work at the BBC in Bristol there are two new delicate shoots poking through the hard soil of the retail allotment. Whiteladies Road is pockmarked with boarded up shops, restaurants, estate agents and mortgage brokers. But two down from Woolies, a new restaurant opens.

No surprise there, maybe, even in recessions new businesses open up. But Rockfish is almost a clone of the failed upmarket fish shop it has replaced. Classy, locally sourced fish dinners. A wet fish counter alongside the restaurant. Even the name on the menu is the same. Mitchell Tonks set up Fishworks in Bath in the 1990s and grew through the foodie revolution to ten outlets. He sold his own share a couple of years ago and then just before Christmas, Fishworks sank.

So what's different now? Is the recovery so strong that Bristol is once again full of posh diners seeking fancy Sea Bass and Samphire?

My resident doom-monger is Mark Dampier, of Bristol money-men Hargreaves Lansdown. He called the credit crunch a year out and refuses to be anything but gloomy still. So could the new "open for business" signs persuade him?

The second new shoot is even more surprising. At first sight, it looks like a mortgage brokers. In fact, Cartel doesn't do mortgages, at least not in the normal way. They "review your financial commitments" which is polite code for a booming industry. if you are having trouble with your mortgage, Cartel's advisers will comb the small print for a legal loophole. They do credit cards and loan agreements too. Their clients have escaped thousands of pounds of debt.

"Yes, a green shoot," says miserable Mark Dampier. "But one that grows on the dung heap of the recession, don't you think? The mountains of debt are so huge companies like this are going to do well."

Waitrose

Down on The Triangle I come upon a sturdy new sapling and another withered little plant.

The sapling? Waitrose. A fancy new city centre offering from the upmarket supermarket, which has been transplanted right onto the site of a posh organic shop that died in the first economic frost of 2008. And they're doing very well.

But right next to it - a shutdown furniture store. Furniture - especially top end stuff - has been walloped by the recession round here. And this is the second firm to try selling bespoke beds from the same spot.

I guess Martin Weale, of the NIESR, would shop in Waitrose and hold his Cheddar Strawberries aloft crying "Here - the good times are coming back!"

Brendan Barber will stand grimly by the "To Let" sign on the old furniture store, muttering about early frosts and green shoots.

So what do you see? Shoot or weeds? Hit the comments now ...

Update 08:21
Seems we're not alone in shoot-spotting. The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) which covers the whole country but has more members in the North, is also identifying "welcome progress" in the magic C Factor....

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    An intersting point re Rockfish/Fishworks, however this has always been one of my favourite restaurants and even up until the end of 2008 the restaurant was always busy. What appeared to bring about Fishwork's demise was the group's rapid expansion over the last few years rather than the Bristol restaurant itself stuggling. On the wider point about greenshoots, many of the Whiteladies restaurants and bars seem to be quite busy at the moment - that could be the recent nice weather bringing out the punters and making them spend or it could finally be the effects of historically low interest rates finally filtering through.

  • Comment number 2.

    Exactly Ben. As so often in this crunch, appearances can deceive. Balance sheets may be more important than menus or price lists. The guys at Business Link say that all the firms they see in trouble are those with, you guessed it, big borrowing. There are high end furniture shops doing ok - despite the crash in that market - because they have grown slowly and steadily. The real friends of Prudence, perhaps?

  • Comment number 3.

    If unemployment increases by another 800,000 taking the total to over 3m it is difficult to see how things won't get worse before they get better. We'll be paying for the debt mountain with higher taxes for years. At the weekend John Major suggested that a 5p rise in the basic rate of tax still wouldn't be enough to tackle the UKs debts.

    But businesses such as Waitrose don't take on "High Street" locations without market research and intelligence - and probably a long rent free period on the lease. Life does go on - where there is muck there is brass. I remember meeting a guy who ran a debt collection agency in the late 80s who was hoping that interest rates, then about 10%, would rise to 17%. He almost got his wish.

  • Comment number 4.

    some companies will always prosper in a recession,but this shouldn't be confused with'green shoots'.Things maybe getting less worse,but what can we look forward to,after the election the next government will 'kitchen sink' everything,in other words the budget will be horrid,expect VAT up to 20%,rises in basic rate tax and cuts in the public sector,add another 1m unemployed,sprinkled with a debt mountain which is the equivalant to each person in the country owing in excess of £30,000 and you hardly have the recipe for a huge recovery.

  • Comment number 5.

    In relation to the notion of 'green shoots' its individual businesses that are finding them. Because many have got to grips with their own individual costs, marketing and promotion those businesses are finding new opportunities. Some have taken advantage of the failures of competitors to increase market share. In one case a small monumental mason was making attempts to acquire the telephone number of a competitor that had failed. I don't know if he succeeded but it shows the ingenuity that some can muster in the face of adversity. Recovery isn't about individual events or achievements but it has to start with something we just need lots more across the whole of industry and commerce.

  • Comment number 6.

    Respected body? The CBI? They are part of the problem. Who cares if we are useless in business - as long as we keep talking up the market.

    And why are you still referring to those who were shouted down when they warned of catastrophe as "doom mongers"?

    They (we) were RIGHT! Listen to us. Surely you are not going to make the same mistakes again?

    I'm in property. Values at least 20% off the top and in free fall. 70% down on transactions .. and unemployment rising. It's going to get a lot worse - or better if you are one of those who want to revert back to real economics ie. only spending money you actually earn and (get this) MAKING things instead of taking in each others washing.

  • Comment number 7.

    So, we're supposed to believe that the worst of the recession is over from the very people who didn't see the recession coming in the first place?

    You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.
    Abraham Lincoln, (attributed)
    16th president of US (1809 - 1865)

  • Comment number 8.

    There are quite afew strands within this article that merit comment. Obviously some of the retail parts of Bristol have been hit quite hard by the opening of Cabot Circus, however, if landlords are sensible it is possbible to attract more independent retailers/restauranteurs if the deal is right. Hopefully Rockfish have taken advantage of better tersm for the re-invention of the concept. I do believe that it is very premature to talk of recovery given the increasing levels of unemployment but given the state of the property market it is possible to reposition small businesses and take advantage of the terms on offer.

    We are an independent retailer in the North West of England and numerous landlords are offering to pay for our entire shop fit costs. We are still being cautious and will continue to grow at a measured pace rather than going gung-ho on an expansion trail as we've all seen before what happens when people over expand. You need the right management/operations team to cope with any expansion and that is often where it falls down.

  • Comment number 9.

    I am an ex civil servant, registered disabled. To cut a long story short I retired on the grounds of ill health and declared bankruptcy due to having more credit card debts than I could pay. It was a tough six months and I still can't get credit, but I actually like that. It forces me to economise and to stash some money away so that I can spend it when the need arises, or just use it for expensive pleasures. I have £100 per month pension that I don't withdraw if I can avoid it, and from my fortnightly state benefits I drop £10 per week into a jar. That way I still have money if the banks do not recover. Then I count what's left and decide how to spend it.
    When I get enough in the jar I plan to buy some shares, looking for ones that are cheap now but might go up in a couple of years. I also buy cheap collectibles from charity shops and sell them on eBay. I read that Howard Hughes (or someone like him) got started in the depression by selling cardboard boxes that someone else had paid him to take away, and I am planning to follow his example.
    The best thing about our system is that a depression is always to somebody's advantage, and their response restores the balance. The bad thing is that the system is so easily upset by people being greedy.

 

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