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Little optimism remains at Hope

19 January 09 07:01 GMT

By Brendon Williams
BBC News

There is precious little hope left at the Hope and Anchor.

The 17th Century country pub in Buckley, Flintshire, has felt the full force of the economic downturn which has hit many small businesses.

Licensees Anna Bell and Paul Foreman took over the inn, also known as "The Trap", in July 2007 and funded a refit with a secured loan on their home.

It started well, as word spread about its cask ales and home-cooked food, but now it could cease trading within days.

The Hope and Anchor was once the home of Jonathan Catherall, one of the main founders of Buckley's brick and pottery industries in the 18th Century, but it is the strains on the modern day building industry which could now spell the end for the pub.

In the last couple of years business was greatly boosted by tradesmen who were working less than a mile away, building 300 houses and apartments.

However, according to Ms Bell, construction has ground to a halt, and the pub's takings have dropped by 50%.

Miss Bell said: "Building stopped. Current trade was lost, from workers to home owners, at the new building sites.

"Job losses at the local industrial estates affected lunchtime and teatime trade and generally people from lower and middle income families chose not to come out so often.

"Takings have dropped by 50% approximately and the hoped for expansion in trade never happened as the economic downturn took its toll."

She said increased fuel, beer and food prices, as well as other problems, "squeezed" the business even further, and the couple now fear they could cease trading at any moment.

She added: "It seems that although we have tried in many numerous ways to think outside the box, in increasing gross profit, we are fighting a losing battle."

Miss Bell said the couple were in discussions with their brewery to try and come up with a rescue package.

She said Flintshire council was also considering the possibility of increased road signage.

She said: "They are currently reviewing their policy on this at present but it is unlikely to come into effect positively for three to four months. That will be too late."

The British Beer and Pub Association said the number of pubs closing each week has now risen to 39.

Julie Williams, from Llanfairfechan, Conwy, wound down two businesses in 2008 and was declared bankrupt.

She said she ran a "successful" day nursery and franchising business, despite having debts of £84,000.

In December 2007, her bank recalled the debt and she was forced to sell the nursery building, which was also her home.

Ms Williams said: "Once the bank called in the overdraft, that was it. Everything spiralled downhill.

"I was trying to negotiate with the banks, robbing Peter to pay Paul. The business was successful, and there was a lot of equity in the building, so there wasn't any reason for the bank to worry.

"People talk about the credit crunch beginning last year, but the banks have been wary of lending money for a long time now.

"My business could have kept going, but without the banks lending, it couldn't carry on."

Ms Williams and a friend who was also made bankrupt are now writing a book in the hope of helping others who experience similar problems.

But 2008 was not all doom and gloom, with some companies expanding despite the downturn.

Robin Langley runs two hairdressing salons - one for men, in Wrexham, which opened in February called Ego X For Men, and another for women in nearby Overton-on-Dee called Ego Xcentric.

Despite charging £25 for a wet shave and £17 for a men's haircut , he said business is good, and he plans to open another salon in March.

He said the key was offering something a "bit different", like computer games for clients to play on, and claims his was the first salon in north Wales to obtain an alcohol licence.

Mr Langley said: "It's about providing a good service and something they won't get anywhere else.

"We're at the luxury end of the market, but people still don't mind paying for a good service, including the men - the wet shaves are really popular."

He said utilising the internet by advertising on sites like Facebook, and sending customers information by mobile phone text had helped the salons flourish.

He added: "Business is really good - long may it continue."

'Full order book'

Most other small businesses, however, can only dream of increasing their trade in the current climate.

Others though, fear that 2009 could be even worse than last year.

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has called on banks to start lending again after an "extremely difficult" year for north Wales firms.

With global companies still struggling in the economic downturn, the FSB said there was also "general pessimism" among small firms for 2009.

Many saw slow trade and had difficulty accessing affordable finance last year.

However, the FSB said it was not all bad news, with some small businesses across the region doing well.

The FSB said many of the problems lie with banks' reluctance to lend money to small businesses.

Mike Learmond, the FSB's regional organiser for north Wales & Chester, said: "I was contacted by a member in Gwynedd in the construction industry.

"He told me he had work coming out of his ears, a full order book and a local authority among his clients. But he had a bit of a problem because he'd had some late payments.

"He went to the bank that he's dealt with for many years, but they wouldn't release any money.

"He said he was told that he filled all the lending criteria, but the bank's head office had ruled that no money was to be lent to the construction industry, as well as pubs and restaurants.

"I've heard similar stories from other members."

Gwyn Evans, the federation's chairman for north Wales and Chester, said the FSB had been successful in persuading councils to pay contractors on time, and encouraging them to use local businesses.

However, he added: "On the other hand, our members are reporting a downturn in trading, difficulties in accessing affordable finance and general pessimism as we approach 2009.

"It is vital that the banks start lending again to small and micro businesses."

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