Recession catches up with Leek as job losses take their toll: Will Bennett reports on a market town which appeared to be surviving the worst of the economic downturn

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The Independent Online
THE RECESSION confirmed its arrival in Leek in the most ironic way possible. The town's biggest employer announced the largest number of local redundancies for years from its pounds 15m headquarters building opened only four months ago.

The Britannia Building Society, with 850 employees at its headquarters in the Staffordshire town and 3,500 nation-wide, had become the flagship of the local economy, just as the barons of the textile industry had once been. It had grown from humble beginnings as the Leek and Moorlands Building Society when it was founded in 1856 to become the ninth largest building society in Britain with assets of pounds 9.5bn and pre-tax profits last year of pounds 64m.

John Heaps, deputy managing director of the Britannia, said: 'When we looked ahead to 1992 we thought that there would be an upturn in the market and that the volume of business would go up. But house prices have continued to decline and the volume has fallen.'

Last Friday, the Britannia announced that 120 staff at its headquarters, a project decided upon in happier economic times, will lose their jobs in November and that 10 branches with 60 staff would close elsewhere in the country.

Mr Heaps said: 'A large part of our costs are head office costs. It is important to get them down and we are always seeking to improve our productivity.'

Although not all the staff live in Leek, it was the second blow within a few weeks to the town, which until then had been riding out the recession more easily than neighbouring areas and doing better than it had in the slump in the early Eighties.

Last month, the Peri-Lusta mill, which made sewing thread, closed with the loss of 40 jobs. Leek's textile industry had undergone a major contraction a decade ago but the slimmed down version had been surviving well this time.

A large war memorial in the centre of the town brings home the historical importance of texiles to Leek. It is not the one which was erected by the local community, which is in a less imposing position.

It was put up by the Nicholsons, a leading family of mill owners, to commemorate Lieutenant Basil Nicholson, who was killed in the First World War. The rest of the dead from the town had their names added to the side.

In the late Seventies and early Eighties mill after mill closed and hundreds of jobs went. Today about a dozen textile firms survive, mostly involved in dyeing, finishing, printing, knitwear and makings braids and trimmings.

Tony Wilson, chairman of the Leek Chamber of Trade, said: 'Unfortunately no new industry has come along to replace textiles except for the antiques and pine furniture businesses.'

Pine furniture manufacturing and antiques businesses appear to have found a natural home in Leek for no very clear reason other than that redundant textile mills make wonderfully spacious showrooms. But no more than 40 jobs have been created by the development.

Estate agents in the town, which has a population of 20,000 and is situated midway between Stoke-on-Trent and the Derbyshire Peak District, have been finding business as bad as those elsewhere. However, until a few weeks ago unemployment only stood at 5 per cent.

But this week the local JobCentre had only 14 vacancies in the town to advertise, although there were others further afield. Six of them were part- time posts, one was temporary and almost all of them were low paid.

Darren Johnson, 18, scanned the notice boards with a resigned air and shrugged his shoulders. 'It's going to get worse before it gets better,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)