HUCKNALL, England (Reuters) - Britain’s fledgling economic recovery is reaching at least some people in this former mining town in the country’s Midlands.
Three builders, enjoying a lunchtime round of beers, said they have a hefty backlog for the first time since the financial crisis plunged Britain into a deep recession five years ago.
They are not alone. The builders offered some work to a long-unemployed joiner but, to their surprise, he was booked for the next three weeks. Their suppliers recently told them they would have to wait for a delivery of materials as they struggled to cope with rising orders from other construction firms.
“It’s hard to get carried away. We know how it can turn and be busy for only one month. But this year is going to be busy all year,” said one of the builders, Tony Cresswell, 46.
Adrian Granger was just back from a week’s holiday on the waterways of England’s Norfolk Broads. Last year, he didn’t have a holiday but with business picking up Granger, 48, feels more confident about spending again.
“I might use my credit cards a bit. I haven’t got thousands of pounds stashed away. If you feel sure you can cover your bills, you’re not shy about spending a bit more,” he said.
Data on Thursday showed the British economy grew 0.6 percent between April and June, up from 0.3 percent in the January-March period. That means the UK economy is growing about 1.4 percent in yearly terms.
This is still well below its pre-crisis peak but the latest data was the strongest performance in more than two years and better than Germany, widely viewed as Europe’s powerhouse but which has been struggling to gain traction.
Local construction firms are riding the optimism about a housing recovery which is being helped by government stimulus.
But the recovery is invisible for many others in Hucknall. Located 130 miles north of London in the former coal-mining belt north of Nottingham, it feels almost like another country to England’s buzzing South East regions around London.
Several retailers on the town’s high street have closed, their space taken by charity shops. An exercise class was moved to a smaller room at the community centre because it was too expensive for some local people to keep attending.
And in a beauty salon, customers who used to come once every two months for a haircut are now taking an extra month before making their next visit, said owner Thanh Thorne, 48, adding to the pressure of meeting her household bills.
“We spend more now than we used to but it’s because everything seems to be going up,” she said, echoing a complaint of many Britons whose incomes are not keeping up with inflation.
Chancellor George Osborne is not celebrating. Criticised by the International Monetary Fund and the opposition Labour party for not spending more to kick the economy into higher gear, he is sticking to his line that Britain is “moving from rescue to recovery” and declines to comment further.
With the economy still so fragile, he is understandably reticent of declaring victory.
Rather than the export-led recovery Osborne envisaged after the Conservative-led coalition took power in 2010, Britain is relying largely on consumer spending and housing to drag itself out of its post-recession malaise. For some, that has echoes of the unsustainable, debt-fuelled growth of the pre-crisis years.
Consumer spending accounts for nearly two thirds of the British economy and that is unlikely to change much until key trading partners in Europe return to financial health.
Britain’s household saving rate has fallen sharply from 7 percent of income to just over 4 percent between late 2012 and early this year, although it remains much higher than before the crisis.
Household debt has fallen from its pre-crash levels but at 140 percent of income at the end of 2012, it is still high.
For many voters, any kind of growth is better than none and they are giving Osborne some credit for that.
“He’s got to be doing something right because something seems to be working,” said John Allen, another of the three builders in Hucknall.
When Britain goes to the polls in May 2015, how people in Hucknall feel about the economy is likely to count - in the last election in 2010, the traditionally Labour seat went to the Conservatives with a majority of just over 200.
For the economy too, a lot is riding on how long British consumers feel confident enough to keep on running down their savings or increase their reliance on credit cards even as their wages are eroded by inflation year after year.
Some economists say measures taken by the government to boost housing and an expected new push by the Bank of England to encourage more spending could galvanise the economy.
Rob Wood, chief UK economist at Berenberg bank in London, said as long as growth of some kind continued, it could set off a virtuous circle.
“The recovery is very unlikely to just unfold smoothly from here, and I think there could be a few hairy quarters,” Wood said. “Underneath that, though, it is a picture of monetary policy gaining traction, confidence returning, and the UK moving from clearly unsustainable growth onto a firmer footing.”
The Bank’s new governor, Mark Carney, is expected to announce in early August a plan to provide consumers and businesses with a clearer steer on how long British interest rates are likely to remain at their record low of 0.5 percent, a change he hopes will encourage more spending in the short term.
It is perhaps no surprise that it is the builders in Hucknall who are feeling upbeat. Osborne has courted controversy with a plan to provide government guarantees for up to 130 billion pounds of higher-risk mortgages over three years.
But the wait for a full recovery is likely to be a long one.
Chris Rider, 48, who works at a car dealership in Hucknall and has a second job at a bicycle shop to make ends meet, sees little sign of a change in mood among customers. People are hanging on to old cars they would have once readily replaced and bike owners are peddling long distances to work to save fuel.
“People are bringing in beaten up bikes to use them to get to work,” Rider said. “It’s like something out of the 1950s.”
Editing by Mike Peacock