Property Survey / East Anglia and Lincolnshire: Facing in the right direction: The feel-good factor is slowly returning to an area that flew high - and fell fast - as Eighties boom turned to bust. David Lawson reports

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The Independent Online
A FEELING that things just might be getting better has begun to emerge in the depths of Eastern England. After flying so high and falling so fast, it is understandable that no one is counting chickens.

David Moore of Grant Thornton in Ipswich can pin down exactly when things began to go wrong. 'It was late summer in 1989,' says the accountant. 'I sat down with my insolvency partner one day and said we had better start employing staff before everyone else snapped them up.'

He was right. The department boomed from half a dozen staff to 32 as the recession ripped through what had become Britain's fastest-growing region. Household names vanished overnight and small firms born into a flush of Thatcherite optimism blew away in clouds.

But the same sort of inklings about recovery are now showing through. The firm has an office over shops in Bury St Edmunds, one of those middle-England market towns that always appears wealthy but can hide an undercurrent of economic pain. During the recession shop lights winked out one by one. 'Now they are all open again,' he says.

Further north in Lincolnshire, a huge windswept area with few major centres to act as barometers, such signs are harder to spot. Yet when Tony Snarey drives through Sleaford, another bastion of middle England hidden between Grantham and Lincoln, he sees housebuilders' boards everywhere - a sure indication that money is on the move.

'It baffles me,' he says. But it shouldn't, as he also has plans for riding the slowly returning tide of confidence. After masterminding an pounds 8m buy-out of the Cornerstone estate agency chain from Abbey National last year, he now has plans to open a half-dozen offices across the county and a similar number in Norfolk.

This huge swathe of Eastern England running almost from the Humber to the Thames has one outstanding advantage in the fight back to growth: it points in the right direction. Forget the Channel tunnel; the vast bulk of European trade will continue to flow through a string of ports stretching from Immingham and Grimsby (still more identified with Lincolnshire than the doomed Humberside) down to Felixstowe.

Lump Essex into East Anglia, as most outsiders do, and a strong case emerges for the Office of Fair Trading investigating such a monopoly over the European connection. This is where dividends will emerge for growing economic integration, gradually spreading inland.

A second advantage is that the region came late to the post-industrial revolution. Only a few decades ago it was a rural backwater - and remains that way in the eyes of a nation hooked on images of Middlemarch and Lovejoy, both shot in this part of the world. But Lincolnshire was one of the few area where manufacturing grew rather than collapsed during the Eighties.

Admittedly, traditional industries like agriculture and farming continued a long- term decline, but new jobs emerged and unemployment is still below the national average.

East Anglia is the region's real powerhouse, however, topping the national league for economic growth during the last decade. While Lincolnshire saw new people moving in, they were mainly retirees, drawn by the Middlemarch villages and seaside resorts. Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire have their share of oldies but the 10 per cent population spurt was dominated by younger couples drawn by new jobs.

Economic output grew faster than any other region - including London - and unemployment remains well below the national average. East Anglia has gained 350,000 people and more than 250,000 jobs in the last 20 years, according to Cambridge Econometrics, and this sort of expansion is expected to resume as the national economy recovers.

Forecasts by National Westminster Bank place the three-county area level with the East Midlands - which includes Lincolnshire - firmly at the head of the UK's growth table over the next five years.

Much of this strength comes from the region's diversity of economic activity. Down in the south, for instance, Cambridge shines out like a beacon through the merger of mind and mammon in its hugely successful science park, where university dons work alongside international high-tech companies. Further east, Ipswich and Norwich have evolved from country towns into office centres, attracting companies driven out of the congested South-East in search of a better quality of life.

Peterborough has metamorphosed from market centre through new town to a new title, Greater Peterborough, by pulling in new employers and people. Another growth phase has just started, with the launch of a pounds 500m expansion to provide 12,000 jobs and homes for more than 13,000 people over the next decade.

Lincolnshire was wracked with pain in the early-Eighties, particularly the fishing ports and Scunthorpe's steel work, so the more recent recession had less impact. Lately, however, agriculture - still by far the biggest employer - is feeling the strain of European grant cuts. The hope is that market gardening in the south of the county may help ease the problem of several thousand job cuts expected in bigger farms to the north.

Small businesses have helped cushion recent blows. For instance, British Marco closed in Grantham 18 months ago, laying off hundreds of engineering worker, yet Lady Thatcher's birthplace does not appear to have been devastated by this kind of legacy left by her policies.

Hopes for the future lean heavily on international connections. Much of the region expects to benefit from the synergy built up with northern Europe - Lincolnshire offering a cheap labour force and government grants to footloose businesses; East Anglia its business parks and upgraded cities. In the meantime, lights continue to wink back on in shopping parades and even Mr Moore admits to 'feeling better with every week that passes' - probably as close as you will get to a vote of supreme confidence from cautious middle England.

(Photograph omitted)