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Andy McSmith: Coffee bars are full again, but the mood is still black

The view from Stevenage

There were more shoppers in Stevenage's shopping precincts yesterday than there were six months ago. The coffee bars were full, where in December they were half empty. A small sign, perhaps, of the economic recovery that experts from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research claim to have detected?

Except that when The Independent put this suggestion to people out and about in the town yesterday, the almost universal reaction was along the lines of "Recovery? What recovery?"

Laura Noble, aged 31, gave up her job with the London Ambulance Service to return to Stevenage to look after her terminally ill mother, and is now anxious to get back into medical work. But not even a degree in paediatric nursing from one of the London teaching hospitals, St Bartholomew's, nor a diploma from the Royal College of Music is a guarantee of employability in these times.

"I'm not convinced in any way, shape of form that there's a recovery. I've got eight A levels and two degrees, and I can't find a job. I'm not a happy woman," she said.

Stevenage is surrounded by prosperous Hertfordshire commuter villages whose inhabitants are in well-paid professional jobs, so a measure of economic activity here is how much people are spending on luxuries such as gold and silver jewellery?

The answer is just about enough to keep Gerald Mogilner in business. He has owned Van Kloof jewellers in Stevenage Old Town for 20 years. Trade is now down 20 to 25 per cent on last year, because the locals are not spending hundreds of pounds on luxury presents for one another as they used to.

"I think this recovery is being talked up in the city," he said. "I don't see it on the ground floor level. It's far too early to predict that it's over. And my rent hasn't gone down 20 to 25 per cent, nor have my rates."

Alex Lewis, 25, has not been unemployed since he left college five years ago, but that is about to change. Business at the IT firm where he works as a warehouseman has fallen off so much that he is expecting to be told next week that he is redundant. He is already looking around for other work.

"It's not that firms don't want IT services, they just don't want them now," he said. "We want to say to them 'Come on, you can improve your business now', but they're waiting. The whole IT industry is taking a big hit.

"It's not that there aren't a lot of other jobs out there. It's just that there are so many people wanting them. Employers are so picky, because they know they can get more for their money."

Alex Arcadipane, 19, and his girlfriend Hannah O'Brien, 16, would like jobs to fill the time between now and full time college in September, but cannot find anything. He lost his previous job as the only male usher in the local cinecentre when takings fell in January. Her situation is complicated by their having an 18-month-old daughter, Lucy. "I'm glad they're saying there's a recovery, but I can't see it," Hannah said.

But the feedback that Stevenage Council has had from local businesses does suggest that a slight recovery might be underway, even if it is barely visible to the naked eye. "We're obviously keeping a very careful eye on problems like debt, and I wouldn't say it's 100 per cent sure we're over the worst," the council leader, Sharon Taylor, said, "But it is just beginning to improve a little bit now."

And of course there was another reason why trade in the shops was brisker yesterday than in December. The sun was out, and who would want to be shut indoors on a day like that?