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UK businesses on the economy


The UK has avoided recession after official figures showed the economy growing by 0.3% in the third quarter of the year. We talk to businesses in key sectors about their view of the economy’s performance.

Tim Webber, 54, film and TV production

Tim Webber, the chief creative officer at the special effects company behind hits including Avengers: Endgame and the BBC’s adaptation of His Dark Materials, says a golden age of TV and film has proved to be a boon for British production companies. Investment in broadcast production, spurred by the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, was a contributing factor in the UK economy avoiding recession between July and September.

Webber, who picked up an Oscar for special effects on the film Gravity, estimates Framestore has probably doubled in size in the past decade in line with the rise of a generation of new streaming services led by Netflix.

“It just keeps getting bigger and bigger,” he says. “There are so many more players out there, the arrival of the streaming platforms has had such a big effect, and now more and more films and TV programmes are using special effects in general.”

Webber joined Framestore in the early 1980s, when the company had about 15 staff and was two years old, and has seen it grow into a global operation with 3,000 employees. About 1,000 are based in London, where the company has its headquarters.

Advances in technology and the deep pockets of newer arrivals such as Amazon, which will spend $20bn (£15bn) on content globally this year, has heralded an investment boom.

“The creative talent – writers, directors, stars and producers – is now the same across film and TV,” he says. “There used to be a big barrier between the two; not any more. We are definitely in the golden age of television.”

Framestore has caught the eye of foreign investors seeking a slice of the UK’s success as a base for global productions. In 2016, Shanghai-based Cultural Investment Holdings acquired a 75% stake in the business in a deal that valued Framestore at $187m.

Darren Crain, 45, housebuilder

A year ago, Darren Crain thought he would probably be out of business by the summer. Brexit uncertainty meant his clients were keeping their wallets firmly closed. A year later, and the Chewton Bespoke Homes director’s order book is full and he is thinking of ending a two-year pay freeze for his four employees.

“Brexit uncertainty has proved to be a nightmare. And elections are not much better. They also make people feel anxious about the future. Thankfully, we have clients willing to spend and ready to go ahead,” he says.

Crain, an architectural designer turned housebuilder, averages three homes a year from his base near Christchurch in Dorset, so he is a minnow in the property game. But he says staying small has insulated him while rival businesses in the area have suffered.

“Other firms report being very quiet, and you can tell its true when you see what’s happening to the builders merchants. They are even ringing me up trying to drum up business,” he says.

Profits have been squeezed by rising costs, which he says come through the increased price of materials and contract labour, where shortages of skilled people have driven up wages.

He regularly employs subcontractors, who he says in some cases have put up their daily rate by a third since the Brexit vote.

“I recognise they need to make a living, but it has proved difficult to make money in that environment,” Crain says.

Tony Hague, 50, manufacturing

Tony Hague
Tony Hague says his business has ‘begun to see a more cautionary approach from our clients’ in the past few months. Photograph: Daniel Graves

Tony Hague has experienced a drop in demand of up to 12% for his company’s services in the past couple of months, in response to Brexit uncertainty and slowing global trade.

As chief executive of PP Control & Automation, he oversees 230 staff and a business with turnover of £26m from a factory in Walsall that builds prototypes and tests new products for manufacturing companies across the UK.

“In the last few months, we have begun to see a more cautionary approach from our clients. They are selling capital equipment round the world and they are finding things heavy going,” he says.

“I would say, though, we are relatively protected compared to firms that have thrown their lot in with the car industry, and Jaguar Land Rover in particular, which has suffered terribly.”

He says demand is unlikely to return to previous highs without the government signing a deal with the EU.

“Everyone has got to the point where we need to draw a line under it. I am not only one to think that we need to put a stop to being the laughing stock of the world,” Hague says.

A remain voter who would rather stay inside the EU, Hague says he is well aware Boris Johnson’s deal is only the beginning of a debate about the UK’s trading relationship with the EU. “But I think the UK will be OK no matter what,” he says.

Last year, the company was sold by its British founder to the Canadian private equity firm Ardenton Capital, and Hague is looking at expansion into the Americas and the US in particular. “We are looking into it. There are exciting possibilities,” he says.

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