Farmer and shopkeeper Richard Haddock says the state of West tourism provides a more accurate picture of the nation’s financial health than anything politicians will see in London.
A friend dropped in to see me recently and mentioned that he had just returned from a quick trip to London.
He said, to judge by the number of people treating themselves to a Champagne breakfast outside one of the better-class establishments on the King’s Road, the recession was well and truly over.
I had to point out to him that that was London and this is the South West. To all intents and purposes two different countries, economically speaking.
People in Chelsea can well afford to sit around drinking Champagne on a Saturday morning. If they own the right kind of house they’re £1,000 a day better off just by living there, such is the rate at which property values are rising.
For the rest of the country the picture is not so rosy, and you only have to examine the current state of affairs in the South West’s tourism sector to realise that.
Admittedly, we have had plenty of the ingredient which is pretty much essential for a decent holiday in the South West: hot sunshine, which always keeps children – and therefore their parents – happy.
So we have also had the usual delays, jams and bottlenecks on the roads, but resorts, camp sites and self-catering establishments have all looked busy. In fact they have been busy, in terms of the number of people they have attracted.
But while those people may have been around, the money has not. It cannot be said, of course, that a holiday in the South West is a cheap option any more, particularly with sterling so strong. For the price of seven nights b&b in Cornwall, for instance, you can pick up a week’s full-board and flight deal down to Spain or the Canaries.
But what I and many others in the tourism business are discovering this year is that holidaymakers are being much more careful with their money. There are no huge bundles of cash being waved around.
A trip to a fairground will mean one ride all round rather than two. A meal out will probably be limited to a main course. Ice-creams are treated as luxuries. Self-caterers are bringing more food from home and heading for the discounters to stock up while they’re down here.
If there’s one trend we at Churston Farm Shop have particularly noticed this summer it’s our increased bread sales. They are up hugely – because bread is nourishing, pretty filling and quite cheap.
As far as holidaymakers are concerned, talk of the recession being over is just that – talk. They aren’t experiencing any euphoria. Their wages and salaries are still pegged to the level they were four or five years ago, while all around them costs have risen.
They’re going on holiday not out of any desire to splash out but because they and their children need a break – and as long as there’s enough spare cash in the family budget they will take it.
But this is where our politicians should be taking their soundings about the state of the nation and the health of its finances. Not in the leafy surroundings of Chelsea where the chinking of Champagne glasses can hardly be heard over the throaty roar of luxury cars.
No, down here, where both the customers and the providers in the tourist sector are gritting their teeth and making the best of it.
What lies behind the reluctance to splash out, to spend on the credit card is the spectre of a rise in interest rates, talk of which sparked a tangible jitter in thousands of households a couple of weeks back.
Because while their wages are being held back and other costs have risen, families are struggling to keep on top of mortgage payments. A significant leap in interest rates now could simply blow a hole in their family finances. Never mind not having enough money for a holiday: there probably wouldn’t be enough for all the essentials – food, clothing, heating and lighting – if we saw the kind of dramatic interest rate rise which has signalled the end of previous recessions.
People are, quite simply, scared of what’s round the corner. It’s essential that politicians realise that. It’s equally important for those who set interest rates to realise that – despite outward appearances in London – the country is still too fragile, still in no shape to sustain a sudden jump.
A quarter of a half of one per cent is about all most families can absorb at this time and for many even that is going to be a strain. That’s why politicians and lenders should be taking the country’s pulse not around the Champagne breakfast tables of Chelsea but at the bed and breakfast tables in the South West.
Richard Haddock is chair of the Conservative Rural Affairs Group
Sales of bread and other basics at Richard Haddock’s Churston Farm Shop have increased, leading him to conclude that the recession isn’t over yet