Economic recovery finally under way

Feelgood factor: There are signs of an upturn in the high street and for Poole Town, the good times are back
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The Independent Online
The Easter weather, it seems, does not reflect the mood in the country. According to the leisure industry and estate agents, fewer Britons are downcast about the economy.

As thousands took off for a break over the weekend, with Gatwick Airport reporting a 15 per cent increase on last Easter in the number of passengers flying abroad, people have had time to reflect on their spending power. And they might just have a bit more of it.

There are signs, albeit cautionary ones, of the "feelgood factor" returning, as tax changes announced last November come into force. Basic rate taxpayers can, on average, expect to gain an additional pounds 15 a year. It's not a lot, but it all adds up.

One possible indicator of renewed economic confidence is the number of golfers teeing off. At least 100 new clubs are expected to open within the next three years.

Membership of sports and fitness clubs is up and the tills are ringing at cinemas across the country. Even bingo halls are filling up - despite the impact of the National Lottery.

Another hopeful sign is the housing market. Estate agents took on extra staff at the weekend in anticipation of an Easter influx.

Before the Easter break there was cheer for 4,500 people taken on as part-time staff at Tesco in a bid to set a new standard in its stores.

According to the English Golf Union, 430 new clubs have been built in the past six years. and the number of amateur golfers has risen from 674,260 in 1995 to 691,981.

Colin Hegarty, of the Golf Research Group, said the industry hit rock bottom and was coming back up. "There is a lot more money around this year than last. Green-fee revenues are hitting record highs."

Rank Organisation, one of the largest leisure groups in the UK, is expected to report on a "feel-better factor" at its AGM on Wednesday.

A spokeswoman said: "We have been optimistic about the outlook for consumer spending."

She said bookings for Haven caravan parks and Butlins had increased in the run-up to the season. "The important thing is how much people spend once they get there."

However, the Association of British Travel Agents reported a slump in holiday bookings. "They are down by 25 per cent on this time last year, but Easter has sold well, particularly city breaks."

He explained that as most holidaymakers lacked economic confidence, they were booking at the last minute. Tour operators have had to cut back holidays by 1 million.

But a Lunn Poly spokeswoman was more optimistic. "People will still book up and there has been an improvement since Christmas."

The most confident are estate agents. A study by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors reveals two-thirds of English and Welsh estate agents have had a 10 per cent increase in viewing and valuation requests this year.

A spokesman for the National Association of Estate Agents, said the feelgood factor was definitely on the way, if the housing market was an indicator.

"It would not surprise at all if, over Easter, there has been more viewing, more inquiries, more offers and hence more sales. Easter is traditionally the starting point," he said. "The market has been looking good over the last three months."

The most important boost for the housing market this year, besides cuts in the cost of borrowing, has been the maturity of PEPs. Indeed, lenders are already considering reviewing their forecasts for 1996 in the light of the renewed demand. But estate agents do not want first-time buyers and house movers to feel too good. ''We do not want a stampede because that would push prices up too high."