Is the recession over? Crawley keeps growing but fails to rejoice: Cal McCrystal finds the Gatwick town trying to live up to its motto

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The Independent Online
A USEFUL place from which to contemplate Britain's alleged emergence from recession seemed to be the grassy knoll of a large traffic roundabout on the northern outskirts of Crawley, West Sussex, last week. This spot - on the London Road, running towards Gatwick Airport - offered more than a suggestion that the town motto, 'I grow and I rejoice', remains apt, despite recent hard times.

Signs of progress were all around: office buildings of modern design, their glass facades reflecting the odd cloud above and neatly landscaped car parks below. The darkened panes of Astral Towers rose to challenge the blues and greys of Lindbergh House. The Alpha 2 Building loomed majestically, its glass and concrete diagonally split.

So there seemed - at first - nothing to contradict the motto, a phrase from Seneca's Epistulae concerning the building of a happy, expanding community.

But it was all a bit of an illusion. These new buildings were almost empty. High up Alpha 2, each red letter of 'TO LET' had a window to itself.

That Crawley (population 87,000) displays the wounds of recession is no surprise. In 1991 the demise of Air Europe, operating from Gatwick, put 86,000 sq ft of office space back on the market just two years after it was hailed as the single biggest letting in the area. Early that year Crawley still had only 1.1 per cent unemployment; it is now 7.2 - low in national terms, but traumatic in a town that once enjoyed 'zero unemployment'.

Tony Gander, supervisor at Perrings, the furniture shop, said: 'There's not much in it compared with a year ago. If anything, business is slightly worse. Whatever the politicians say, the recession is really biting now. We closed our carpets section at Christmas and soft furnishings after Christmas. We're concentrating on upholstery. The airline staff at Gatwick used to come to us for their furniture, but not any more. We're likely to be gloom-town for quite a while before becoming boom- town again.'

At night, he said, most shops switch off window lights at seven o'clock, leaving the town centre to 'the local youngsters'. Some of these, according to other residents, 'will mug anything that moves'. One of the New Towns for London's overspill after the Second World War, a place of airy parks, growth and rejoicing, Crawley is creepy after dark.

In daylight, however, its commercial heart pulsed bravely if erratically. As the newspapers hailed 'the end of recession', the manager of Gambly's High Street toyshop felt people 'are still holding back on spending money', but took heart from the fact that a new Action Man generation was on the shelves. This boys' doll cost pounds 4.99 before it went out of fashion 10 years ago. Now rejuvenated and re- equipped since the Gulf war, 'Action Man' squares up nowadays at pounds 14.99.

Yet, further along the street, Pickford's Travel reported steady business, and at Fads home decoration store, the manager said sales of wallpaper and paint had 'picked up a little bit'. He believed that even the unemployed made sacrifices in order to redecorate and brighten their lives. At the same time, on the industrial estate, August Systems has ridden out the recession effortlessly. Specialising in hi-tech safety systems for the oil and nuclear industries, its turnover five years ago was pounds 750,000. Last year it was more than pounds 13m.

At the Crawley office of Touche Ross, chartered accounts and corporate finance consultants, Martyn Vernon-Smith said: 'I think people are just beginning to talk in a slightly more positive way. One or two are making inquiries about business opportunties and future expansion. I'm hoping the momentum will continue through the summer and not fall away as it did a year ago.'

Crawley originally was based on three small agricultural communities in which an early Saxon church and an Elizabethan hotel survived. It is now building its 13th neighbourhood, Maidenbower, expected to lift the population to 100,000 by early next century. Of a planned 3,500 homes, 700 have gone up, and custom is slow. But, said the woman in the office of Bryant Homes, 'we are now getting the prices we ask'.

Crawley's proudest landmark is the County Mall, opened a year ago to attract shoppers from as far away as Brighton, Horsham and Worthing. Travelling up and down the escalators of this glittering place suggests that the recession has indeed faded. Chris Hord, assistant manager of Thornton's, was selling 18 per cent more chocolates than a year ago - 'Things are looking up'. Hans Wustefeld, Dutch-born manager of the mall, said 85 per cent of his floorspace has been let. 'There is renewed confidence, but people are spending more wisely. There's less impulse buying.'

Two weeks ago, a Pie, Mash and Stewed Eel restaurant opened on Orchard Street. At pounds 1.25 a meal, it has been a great success - better even than a thriving Thai restaurant which opened on High Street six months ago.

Perhaps these isolated successes should not be accorded too much significance. Headlines such as 'Industry Turns the Corner' cannot disguise Crawley's predicament. Dan-Air, British Island Holidays and Air Europe have gone from Gatwick - not to mention the 'knock- ons'among the in-flight catering and cleaning firms. Duracell moved its production to the Continent (while retaining administrative headquarters in Crawley). Other manufacturing companies have also moved.

There is no post-recession euphoria on Queens Square, where a stroll revealed new flags of distress: sales of CDs at Woolworths, 10 per cent off children's clothing at Littlewoods, a 'camera price crash' at Dixon's, pounds 5 vouchers for Mansfield shoes, 'crazy summer sale' at Sport and Ski, free credit everywhere - and not a few empty shops.

(Photograph omitted)