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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 March 2008, 12:59 GMT
Luton is hit by economic squeeze
Ray Furlong
BBC News, Luton

Luton town centre
People in Luton are feeling the effects of the credit crunch

When the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, delivers his budget on Wednesday, he will be doing so in some of the least favourable conditions of recent times.

Rising fuel and food prices, a falling pound, and slackening growth form a gloomy backdrop, not to mention the problems at Northern Rock and the global credit crunch.

The deputy governor of the Bank of England, Rachel Lomax, has said we face "the largest ever peacetime liquidity crisis" as banks tighten up lending requirements and raise the cost of their loans and mortgages.

People are worried the length and breadth of the country.

Mortgages rising

Luton is a higgledy-piggledy jumble of Victorian and Edwardian buildings, masked by modern shop fronts, clustered round a mall.

It seems busy enough, but mention the words "credit crunch" to anyone here, and you are sure to get a response.

Gail Swayne
The credit crunch is hitting everybody. People are wary. They are waiting to see what will happen.
Gail Swayne,
Lloyds TSB, Luton

Stuart Cook is a local council worker and one of six million homeowners in the UK with a fixed-rate mortgage who could see his monthly payments soar when it expires.

"My mortgage will go up so much that my entire wage would go on paying it," he says. "I wouldn't be able to afford to pay my bills or council tax."

"We've got a baby coming soon and that's an extra cost. I'm trying to do as much overtime as possible, but there's only so much available," he adds.

At least Mr Cook has some breathing space as his fixed rate deal has a year to run. There are 1.4 million people in the UK who have just months before their deals expire.

Tip of the iceberg

Already there are signs that the higher mortgage costs are starting to bite, and industry figures show that there was a 20% rise in home repossessions in Britain during 2007.

At the County Court, Martina van Derleij is a barrister who has spent the morning dealing with those who cannot cope with the tightened credit environment.

"You go to court and there are lists for bankruptcies and lists for repossessions and you see those lists getting longer," she says.

"These people are the tip of the iceberg. I suspect this will continue for the next few years as people come off fixed mortgage rates and have to go on to variable rates," Ms van Derleij adds.

Gail Swayne, the senior branch manager at the Lloyds TSB branch in central Luton, confirms the changed financial climate.

"We're lending less money than we used to," she says. "The credit crunch is hitting everybody."

She goes on to explain that the bank is being fussier about who it lends to and wants customers to put down a deposit if they are buying a house.

Credit tightening

Lloyds TSB fits a wider pattern.

At the beginning of the year there was still a wide choice of 125% mortgages. Today, these loans no longer exist, and many lenders have joined Lloyds TSB in demanding at least a 10% deposit.

"There is less interest in the mortgage market at the moment. People are wary. They're waiting to see what will happen,' Ms Swayne says.

Mark Richards
"Everyone's much more aware of costs than they were a 18 months ago.
Mark Richards,
Baker, Luton

"We are saying to customers, 'bring your mortgage to us', rather than, 'borrow more money'."

Here too, Lloyds TSB matches the national trend. Mortgages for new homes are down a third on a year ago, although overall mortgage lending is up as people coming to the end of fixed-loan deals remortgage.

Net lending via credit cards and personal loans is also up marginally.

But conditions are tightening. It is more difficult to get 0% on balance transfers, and more people are being refused cards.

"Providers are looking more closely and being choosier," says Steve Willey, head of cards for Moneysupermarket.com.

David Dooks, director of statistics at the British Bankers' Association, agrees.

"We know the financial industry has not been in these sort of circumstances previously," he explains.

"We've not had wholesale markets drying up to the extent that they did, so we're in a different ball game altogether and that necessarily means that people have to reassess their business models and lending criteria," Mr Dooks says.

'Wider picture'

But back in Luton, not everyone blames the credit squeeze for the current business climate.

"It's one of many things," says Mark Richards, who runs a busy bakery in the town centre.

"You only have to look at suppliers. They're much keener to keep their bills up to date and everyone's much more aware of costs than they were 18 months ago," Mr Richards explains.

"I notice the price of wheat going through the roof. So it's a much wider picture than just the credit crunch, there's a lot more factors than that," he says.

The Luton Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, warns against "talking ourselves into a recession".

But like many in the town and nationwide, they will be watching closely when Alistair Darling steps up to the Despatch Box on Wednesday.





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