Two teenage girls in tracksuits watch as small brown fish suck at their toes. It is nearly closing time in the fish pedicure shop; outside, the drab Walsall shopping centre has started to empty.
Sharon, who runs the shop, folds towels and puts lids on the fish tanks. She says it feels as if recession never ended here. “It’s just the same, I don’t think it’s going to get better.” Outside, one in every four of the shops in the town centre is empty, according to the Local Data Company.
But not all of Walsall’s companies are suffering. At Chamberlin’s Walsall foundry, which makes castings for turbo chargers, men in protective helmets pour white-hot liquid iron into buckets then haul them on cables down the factory aisle. The company is bringing in as much revenue as it was before the recession.
Welcome to the rebalancing of the British economy. Many manufacturers have run out of spare capacity and easy opportunities to expand but vacant properties lie in sectors of the economy unlikely to witness raging demand in the years to come. The combination is a recipe for slow growth.
In early 2009, Chamberlin was only running for three days in every fortnight. “We made a quarter of [the men] redundant and the rest of them just had to get on with it, even though they didn’t have enough money to keep body and soul together,” says Tim Hair, chief executive of the AIM-listed company.
Now the foundry is producing as much as it was before the downturn. Annual sales are back to about £40m and the company has returned to profit. Since Chamberlin exports about two-thirds of its products either directly or indirectly, the company is relatively insulated from the slow domestic recovery. “We’re in the nice position where I see the GDP numbers for the UK and I largely ignore them,” says Mr Hair.
Sharon in the fish pedicure shop is much more exposed to the domestic economy. She and her husband lost their jobs and their house in 2009.
Now they worry about their bills – a weekly food shop that used to cost £70 now costs £110 – and their daughter, a single mother whose benefits have been cut. “They’ve kicked us in the teeth once, we’re just getting back on our feet and they’ve come and kicked us in the teeth again,” she says.
She knows gas bills are set to rise sharply and worries about how her daughter and granddaughter will cope. “We’re going to be paying for two households,” she says resignedly. “I’m really dreading this winter.”
Economic deprivation is not new to Walsall. Still, the downturn was hard on the West Midlands town of 250,000 people and the slow economic recovery has failed to repair much of the damage. The unemployment rate is 11.6 per cent, only slightly lower than its 2010 peak of 12.4 per cent.
There are splashes of apparent prosperity too; legacies of an injection of regeneration funds in the pre-recession era. Walsall College, for example, was rebuilt two years ago.
“We were lucky, we were one of the last colleges to be funded,” Peter Roberts, vice principal, says. His college, which is all wood, glass and chrome, is unusually responsive to the local economy because it works closely with businesses to structure its courses. “If it doesn’t lead into employment, we don’t do it,” Mr Roberts says.
The funding came in part from the Learning and Skills Council and Advantage West Midlands – organisations that have since been dismembered and disbanded respectively. In rebalancing Britain, new and private sources of regeneration money appear some way off.
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