Have the Lothians managed to cope as the recession ends?

IT'S been the toughest recession since the Second World War and the casualties have been high.

Firms have gone bust, workers have lost their jobs and Edinburgh's financial sector was left reeling.

Now, finally, there's some good news. Official figures released yesterday showed marginal growth in the economy, revealing a chink of light at the end of what has been a gloomy tunnel for many.

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While the news has been welcomed as a positive sign after months of misery, it might be too early to pop the Champagne.

Graham Birse, of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, warns that while Edinburgh is well placed to fight back, there are still hard times ahead, particularly in public finance.

"A recent report from the Centre for Cities indicated that Edinburgh was better positioned than all the other cities outside London to recover," he says. "That suggests more strength and diversity in our environment than people gave us credit for, although the public sector still faces significant cuts."

But he adds: "Edinburgh will endure, survive and prosper."

So, as we emerge blinking from a downturn which has cost 596,000 people their jobs, the question is: how was the recession for you?

THE BUILDER

The building industry has been left reeling from the economic slowdown.

"Anyone out there that says they've not been affected by the recession is a liar," says George Aitken, 44, who runs Aitken Builders with his brother Paul, 48, and employs eight people.

"It's not been easy but we're still here, and we're busy, so perhaps the recession has weeded out some of the ones that weren't as strong in the first place.

"To be honest, the recent bad weather hit us harder than the recession has."

The family firm specialises in attic conversions and extensions, and George believes part of their business has been fuelled by householders who opted to spend money on their home rather than gamble on the housing market.

"People want to invest in their home but, rather than move house, they are opting to stay where they are and extend.

"That's where the recession has actually been OK for us."

The downside, however, is a glut of builders desperate to survive.

"There's a lot of undercutting, sometimes by as much as 30,000 on a big job," says George. "This is the hardest game in the world. You hear horror stories – jobs getting left because firms can't finish the job – but I think if you run your business properly, you get through this."

As for the future, George says January has already seen a welcome increase in business.

"I think if you're a quality company and you do quality work, you can survive this."

THE CABBIE

In 33 years behind the wheel, taxi driver Joe Horsburgh has seen economic blips come and go.

He admits that while this recession has bitten the trade hard in some areas, in others business has been steady.

"You learn to pick and choose the times to work," he says. "Obviously Friday and Saturday nights are busiest, so that's when you head out. Things have been particularly slow recently but then they always are during January anyway. You've just got to grin and bear it."

Edinburgh's status as a top tourist destination has helped but Joe, 60, of Corstorphine, says trade has been hit by the troubled financial services sector.

"Contracts have been lost," he says. "A lot of the financial companies used to have taxi contracts but now they've gone and they're putting on their own buses for staff to move between offices."

THE MORTGAGE ARRANGER

It's been a lean time for mortgage arranger Ken Montgomery.

"I've basically been unemployed for the past eight months," he sighs. "It has been that bad."

He runs Lothians Mortgage Services in Bathgate, organising mortgages for first-time buyers and established homeowners.

Ken, 62, says business has never been so desperate: "Three estate agent-mortgage advisers have closed down in Bathgate. For me, it got to the stage that I'd sit in the office all day, bored.

"Normally I'd expect to deal with 15 to 20 mortgage arrangements a month. Over the last eight months of the year, you're lucky if I did two."

He believes banks are still creating difficulties for borrowers with complex credit scoring criteria which sees around 40 per cent of potential loans knocked back.

"I'm lucky, I've got a separate income from rental properties, but it's been tough," he says.

THE B&B OWNER

Susan Virtue, 60, has run the Gold Award-winning Town House bed and breakfast in Gilmore Place for 28 years. For her, the recession has been a case of "some you win, some you lose".

She says: "There has been a definite increase in European visitors in the past year, probably because it's now a lot cheaper for them to come here. At the same time, there has been a dip in UK visitors, so it's balanced out."

She has welcomed more Dutch and German visitors in particular, but UK business travel guests are tightening their belts.

"There's still a lot of demand when the rugby is on but UK tourists have fallen back."

She opened her B&B in 1982, as Britain was battling through another recession which saw inflation soar to 27 per cent and three million people out of work.

"I'm experienced enough to know how to cope," she says. "I know that things will pick up again."

She says the recession hasn't been as big an issue as the glut of bargain hotels that have sprung up in the city.

"They are very hard to compete against."

And as for talk of the recession ending? "January has been absolutely dire," she says.

THE PUBLICAN

Scotland's pub trade was reeling from the smoking ban, cheap supermarket booze deals and above-inflation taxes when the recession hit.

Shaun Simon, 39, boss of the Tolbooth Tavern in the Royal Mile, says business has been steady thanks to his pub's prime location.

"We're very tourism driven and there's still tourists coming," he says. "They are different tourists – more Russians, less Americans, which has been unusual.

"We benefited too from the 'staycations' trend last year and saw a lot more UK tourists, and certainly The Gathering and the Homecoming events helped."

He says pubs which have suffered during the recession simply might not have been in the strongest position to start with. "We have some regulars who have perhaps cut back slightly on how often they come in. I can understand how that would affect pubs who rely on that kind of business.

"It's good news that we are apparently coming out of a recession but the impact isn't likely to trickle down for a few months."

THE BUSINESSMAN

Signs of what was to come hit Geoff Hirst's computer software business before the banks plunged into crisis.

He says: "A number of my customers were linked to the housing market and that started to fall apart even before the banks. Eventually it killed around 60 per cent of my business. When you lose around 6,000 a month income, it's very hard to get it back."

Geoff, 42, who runs 64Bitz Computer Consultancy in Livingston, was forced to shift focus as his traditional clients vanished. His business has developed into providing software for security firms.

"It was major shift for me," he adds. "I was thinking of doing it anyway but the recession did move that area along a lot quicker for me."

He's survived the recession but is bitter at the role of Britain's banks. "They are judge, jury and executioner over good businesses which are actually better than they are at running their business," he says. "They have been making very harsh decisions which have had a big knock-on effect.

"Things are improving but we are no way out of a recession yet.

"It's far too early to put on our party clothes."