Suddenly, the profit's gone out of Leamington Spa

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The Independent Online
SPIRAL OF decline is not a phrase readily associated with Royal Leamington Spa. Only two years ago, the Warwickshire town was feted as the most successful for businesses in the United Kingdom.

Twice running, it had topped the league tables of the towns with the highest proportion of profitable businesses. Last year, its ranking dropped to a still respectable number eight. Now, in tables published today, Leamington Spa finds itself at a dismal number 53.

Top of the list of the latest survey by Dun & Bradstreet is, for the second year running, Banbury in north Oxfordshire, where 89.9 per cent of businesses made a profit last year.

Not that Leamington Spa perceives itself as a loser, despite its miserable new placing. Just a bit sleepy, maybe, and living off past glories.

At the bottom of the town stands a statue of the woman whose legacy in some respects still dominates the show. Seven years before she ascended the throne, Queen Victoria ("she wrought her people lasting good", proclaims the inscription) stayed here in 1830. That was the first time the future monarch had spent the night in a public building, according to proud Leamingtonians. It was she who bestowed the name of "Royal" on Leamington Spa, with the accompanying sense of grandeur.

In honour of the imminent reopening of the Royal Pump Rooms after a multi- million-pound facelift, the main street is now bedecked with flags; a fully costumed Queen Victoria was transported through the streets of the town earlier this month, in preparation.

This is a town of quiet respectability. Admittedly, the graffiti at the station declares: "Welcome to the most fucked-off town that's going". Elsewhere, however, there is an air of more-or-less tranquillity, including even an old cobbled slipway down to the River Leam, known as the Elephant Wash because it allowed circus animals easy access to their ablutions.

Leamington Spa's previous victory was, unsurprisingly, headline news here. Now, that the tide has turned, some are insisting that it must all be a dreadful mistake. Nick Madeley, director of the local chamber of commerce, said: "One does suspect the quality of the information they are getting." Dennis Stanley, economic development officer at Warwick District Council, which includes Leamington Spa, is more circumspect in his criticism, noting that the economic indicators used by Dun & Bradstreet are only some of a number of possible statistics.

He pointed out that the 2.4 per cent unemployment here is barely half the national average. More tellingly, unemployment is lower than it was when Leamington Spa was declared top in the business success stakes two years ago. "We like winning. But we won't lose sleep at night. We'd be much more worried if the other indicators were looking bad."

Some manufacturing companies in the Leamington Spa area have faced difficulties in the past year. But Mr Stanley insisted that there have been more inquiries about inward investment than at any time for 10 years. "It's like what they say about property prices. What counts is location, location, location. Everybody says they're at the centre. The difference is that we've actually got it." Leamington Spa is close to the M40 motorway, close to Birmingham airport, and has good rail links to London.

Philip Mellor, a senior analyst at Dun & Bradstreet and the author of the survey, argued that a mix of manufacturing and services is essential to withstand the economic doldrums - a position that Leamington Spa still partly enjoys. Some of the dreaded telesales centres, the boom industry of the 1990s, have set up shop here. The town centre shops and restaurants are still busy, with all the old urban standards - Marks & Spencer, Body Shop, WH Smith, Pizza Express - accompanied by the latest boutiques and must-have new arrivals such as the Seattle Coffee Company.

Mr Mellor has some comforting words, pointing out that small variations can have major knock-on effects in terms of the D&B rankings. "It's like a 100-metre sprint - nothing drastic is happening with Leamington. The hard core is still performing well."

Just a few businesses slipping into the red can make the difference between honour and ignominy. In Banbury, 89.9 per cent of businesses were profitable; Leamington is just six percentage points behind, at 83.4 per cent.

Leamingtonians are not preparing to slit their wrists just yet. In the words of Brian Worrall, 52, a teacher in the town: "I never felt it was as boom-towny as people said - but there's no feel of a slump either. This feels like a blip. But then, being number one was probably a blip as well."

The Most Profitable Counties

1999 County 1999% 1998% 1998

position

1st Renfrewshire 87.3 83.9 7th

2nd West Lothian 87.1 86.4 2nd

3rd Cornwall 86.4 82.4 18th

4th Co Antrim 86.3 83.3 9th

5th Lincolnshire 86.0 86.5 1st

6th Herefordshire 85.9 81.4 33rd

7th West Glamorgan 85.3 83.8 8th

8th Gloucestershire 85.2 83.3 9th

9th Dorset 85.1 78.9 46th

9th Nottinghamshire 85.1 82.3 22nd

Table shows proportion of profit-making companies

The Most Profitable Towns

1999 Town 1999% 1998% 1998

position

1st Banbury 89.9 90.6 1st

2nd Eastleigh 89.7 87.5 8th

3rd Harrogate 89.7 86.4 15th

4th Maidstone 89.7 81.1 84th 5th Preston 89.4 90.2 2nd

6th Halifax 88.6 88.2 7th

7th St Albans 88.3 78.8 122nd

8th Barking 88.1 84.1 39th

9th Bath 88.1 85.6 21st

10th Wembley 88.0 82.9 51st

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