The Global Crisis: United Kingdom: Unsettled forecast in barometer of Britain

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BRIGHT FLOWERS in plastic buckets lined the entrance to Cannongate Shopping Centre in Worcester and Alan Prince, a florist, was busy with secateurs and sheets of paper.

There were roses for an elegant, silver-haired woman, spray carnations for another shopping with her friend and a mixed bunch for a third woman complaining about the drizzle. Business was steady on Saturday afternoon. "It's strange, but we don't actually do badly in a recession. In fact we can do quite well," said Mr Prince, 34, the owner of seven florists throughout the West Midlands.

"Because people don't have a lot of money and can't afford a big present they spend a few pounds on a bunch of flowers and find that gets the same results as spending pounds 40 on a bottle of perfume. But there is no doubt that there is a bad vibe at the moment. Maybe it's people just talking things up but there is real concern about what's around the corner."

Mr Prince was not the only trader in Worcester with concerns about what may be around the corner. At an ethnic clothes store in the Hop Market, Deborah McCormick shook her head as she tidied pairs of baggy cotton trousers. "People just seem to be hanging on to their money at the moment. You just have to look around. I went into Woolworths yesterday and the place was empty," she said.

Such testimony may be anecdotal, but the men and women with the calculators, flow charts and long-term financial forecasts would do well to take note. For many years, Worcester has had the reputation as the economic barometer of Britain. One of the reasons for this tidy city's status is its position at the hub of a number of transport networks, something taken advantage of by big companies such catalogue giants Kay and Co, which base their distribution networks there. "If people are not buying as much then Worcester gets the knock-on effect," said Andrew Martin, editor of the Worcester Evening News. "It means that Worcester itself can be doing well but if the rest of the country is finding it tight, the city can be affected."

A recent survey of the city and county economy, commissioned by the county's chamber of commerce, found that although Worcester was performing at an average rate for Britain now, its prospects for the next 10 years were not so bright. More investment, a better mix of businesses and a solution to the city's traffic snarl-ups were needed.

"Worcester is a very dynamic city. I don't see a recession but I do see some difficult times," said Alan Curless, the chamber's chief executive. "For the past two years we have seen optimism drop."

Back in the damp High Street, David Johnson was trying to tempt shoppers with helium balloons. He didn't seem to be rushed off his feet. "Yeah, it's steady I suppose. Not great, but then again it is the month after Christmas."

Perhaps the subdued demand was nothing more than that. But perhaps not.