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At Bristol docks, the recovery is still at sea

Dave Harvey | 07:02 UK time, Friday, 23 October 2009

Patrick Kearon could be in Shakespeare. He has an argosy, bound for Bristol. It will bring prosperity to the Royal Portbury Docks, where he works, and the people of the west country. But it's not even on the horizon yet.
Royal Portbury Docks, Bristol

"Our story is still negative," he tells me. These docks are the second busiest in the country, a fine artery to feel if you want to take the pulse of the west country.

I see Hondas made in Swindon being loaded here for export. When Renishaw of Gloucestershire carefully pack their high tech medical components for Chinese customers, they'll leave from these quays. Build a row of townhouses in Taunton, and it's likely your steel and cement will swing off a geared ship at Portbury.

And the numbers here tell a clear story.

Year on year, coal is down. Building materials are down, steel, even booze is down. Cars are the only positive, and even they are only moving more than at Christmas 2008. Compared with summer 2008 and before, car imports and exports are still down a fifth.

I drive round the docks with Patrick, on a filming recce for Points West. We're expecting the GDP numbers out today to go slightly positive, but everyone tells me any recovery will be very fragile. Would the docks make a good backdrop to our story on the day?

It's a TV dream. Vast ocean liners swallow Hondas like mackerel. In the coal stacks, you lose your scale and it looks like a giant black sandpit. And then Patrick says something unusual.

"We don't want to clash with your story, Dave. If the story on Friday is about recovery, we might not be the right location. Our story is still negative."

Honesty has certainly been one fruit of this recession. Patrick's not the only businessman who's abandoned trying to talk up his trade.

Here are three of my "insiders" with their take on the story so far:

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"It's certainly no time for champagne," smiles Lucy Bristow wryly. "More a half glass of chardonnay." Lucy is my insider in the west country job market, and she reckons things are still awfully iffy.
Lucy Bristow
"It's unpredictable," she says, "some sectors are up, like financial services - which fired lots of people last year, but is now coming back with jobs. But it's still an employers market out there. I think it's way too early to call a recovery."

And yet and yet, those estate agents I met yesterday, those furniture makers, they are seeing proper business coming back, aren't they?

This is all rather hard for journalists. I come back to the newsroom and tell my tale. "Well, is it boom or bust?" someone asks. "Is the recovery here - or not?"

The honest answer is this. It's a bit of a mish-mash. Some areas, like lawyers, finance, estate agents, are busier than they were a year ago when the global crunch hit home. Others, like the docks, and a lot of manufacturing, are still quiet. Then you get the niche business, reliant on exports and enjoying the weak pound maybe. ( In fact, Renishaw are a case in point: their trade to China has lifted recently, allowing them to restore some of the pay cut staff had to take.)

It's not much of a headline is it?
"Mixed fortunes for the west as some businesses do well and some others find it tough, but not as tough as it used to be, mind you September was OK, but then August...."

I decide to go with the docks for our filming. Positive figures or negative, this place captures the spirit of business in the west better than any words.

Hmmm. Help me out here. How is it for you?

Update: 13:02
Well, that was a bolt from the blue. Negative numbers, the recession continues.
As you'd probably guessed, journalists had been planning for a small recovery, guided by the "experts". Turns out my man at the docks was on the money: the worst of this might be past, but there's still more rain out there than economic sunshine.


  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    Great to hear that Bob - and clearly if the economy is shrinking by 0.4% there will be plenty of firms doing ok, even well. I've tried to keep the doom and gloom in check - read the estate agents blog below for a bit more cheer. Any more success stories out there?

  • Comment number 4.

    As a small engineering specialist consultant, we are in contact with a range of companies providing services throughout the construction sector. It is true to say that virtually all the larger and medium consulting engineers, architectural practices and many contractors have made severe and deep cuts in staff over the last eighteen months. Talks of: outsourcing to India; office closures and 20% reductions in salary are common and this seems to be continuing even now.

    However, we have noticed that smaller consulting practices seem to be relatively unscathed and many including ourselves are doing okay. Indeed, we have employed an additional five people this year and the majority or our recruits have come from medium and larger consulting engineers. There are quite a few similar practices in the Bristol and Bath area just like ourselves. Most were formed in the early 2000s when we left larger consultants and when times were booming. We have all grown and still flourish despite the rowing against the economy. Are any other sectors similar to us where being small matters?


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