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Shopping with the Chancellor

Dave Harvey | 17:19 UK time, Wednesday, 9 December 2009

They've had acrobats on the roof. Catwalk models twirling in mid-air. Shoppers at Bristol's fancy new shopping centre are used to elaborate sideshows, but today they had a new treat.

BBC2's Live Pre-Budget Report Show descended on Cabot Circus, for that "let's get out of London" factor. Real reaction they wanted, from real businesses.

I suggested a few people for them, and went down to watch the fun. It's always nice watching high budget telly, and this was no disappointment. Lights, props, even a steadicam like the one on Strictly. Proper job.

The real show, of course, was in Westminster. The once dry "Autumn Statement" now turned high political theatre as Alastair Darling juggled the biggest deficit in peacetime history. So, what did our west country panel make of it?

"Not a lot, to be honest." Dr John Savage, Chief Exec of Business West, one of the main voices of collective business in these parts.

"Not much encouragement to take people on," he continued, "a few scraps here and there, but no detail on the big hole, the big gap in the budget which I fear will lead to substantial unemployment in the public sector next year."

As you probably know, a lot of people work for the government round here. A quarter of the Bristol workforce, 40% in Bath, a third in Swindon. "Public spending restraint" has a chilly sound to it in these parts. But detail on the cuts? Nothing, Dr Savage lamented.

What of the small business then? The uber-chic digital creatives that make Bristol funky? The Banksys and Aardmans of the future? The Chancellor gave "creatives" a mention, offering a £160m investments to hi-tech and creative industries.

"I felt very special for all of about 10 seconds," smiled Jaya Chakrabarti, ruefully. Jaya runs Nameless, a digital marketing firm, and she was a little, well, underwhelmed.

"Most creative businesses are tiny, micro businesses with under ten people. We're not going to be able to take advantage of the 10% on patenting, cos we're too small. And while it's nice not to have the hike on corporation tax, that's not so much a gift as a punch that never came."

What a miserable lot, Labour supporters might fume. What do they want? I should stress that I have no idea of the party loyalties of my guests, they're just people who know west country business. And their complaint wasn't that the Chancellor had done the wrong things, or not done the right things. It was more that he told us the debt would drop by £90bn or so in four years, but gave little idea how.

Stella Weekes is probably the most positive of the lot. Stella runs a big recruitment firm in Swindon and Bristol, and has seen recessions come and go.
"It was nice to see something for young unemployed people," she smiled. "They need the training, and it's making a difference already when they come in looking for work."

But even Stella has a 'but'.

"But there was nothing for the over 50s, and it's them that we're really seeing through the door every day. They need help in retraining too, but I haven't heard a thing for them."

Cabot Circus was heaving today, full of shoppers looking for Christmas bargains. Estate agents tell me houses are selling again. Airbus have just sold another 25 planes to United Airlines, the wings, as ever, coming from Filton and North Wales.

Is this the recovery? Will good business bring in the tax revenues the Treasury needs to close that gap? Or will next year be, as one man put it to me today, 'the year of the axe, the year the recession enters Chapter 2: The Public Crash'?


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