By Lea Pachta

– But Clifton Asset Management survey highlights “two-speed” regional recovery with more job cuts on the way

– Conservatives would win election if business owners were the only voters, according to research

Small business owners say their retirement prospects are finally beginning to improve as the UK begins to emerge from recession.

But the latest quarterly survey of more than 1,000 businesses, carried out by Clifton Asset Management (CAM), also reveals that attitudes vary considerably in different parts of the country.

Some 77 per cent of business owners say their retirement is further away now than it was a year ago — slightly down on the 80 per cent recorded three months ago.

But the differing speed at which recovery is under way in different regions is reflected in the fact that in the East Midlands, 90 per cent say their retirement hopes have receded, up from 83 per cent, with the figure in the North East holding steady at 86 per cent. By contrast, in the South West only 68 per cent of business owners now view their retirement as having moved further away, down 13 per cent.

The main reasons given for delaying retirement are tougher trading and market conditions (55 per cent) and declining property and pension values (23 per cent).

In terms of retirement age, 60-65 remains the most popular option in the survey, with 18 per cent saying they have no plans to retire, down from 22 per cent.

The latest CAM survey also asked business owners who would win the forthcoming General Election if they were the only voters. Over two-thirds — 67 per cent — said the Conservatives would win power — compared to just 6 per cent who named Labour.

And in line with previous surveys, a majority of SMEs said the Government’s Enterprise Finance Guarantee (EFG) scheme had failed to improve bank lending or facilities for businesses. Only 7 per cent of firms said they had been successful in accessing finance through the EFG.

Neil Greenaway, managing director at Clifton Asset Management, said: “How people view their retirement prospects is a crucial part of our survey, so a fall — albeit small — in the number of business owners who see retirement moving further away has to be good news.

“We are now officially out of recession and no doubt this affects how people see their retirement prospects, although the wide variations between different parts of the country highlight how some regions are performing better than others.”

London (70 per cent) and the South East (65 per cent) remain the most optimistic regions in terms of business owners’ views of their area being better placed for economic recovery than the UK as a whole, with Wales and the North East the least optimistic (25 per cent and 29 per cent respectively).

Regional differences are also stark when it comes to job cuts among SMEs. The overall rate has slowed slightly over the past six months, according to the CAM research, but the trend is upward once again for the next two quarters. Only in London and the West Midlands has the percentage of business owners expecting to make job cuts fallen, with the figure for the North East rising to 27 per cent — more than double the figure for last time.

“Our latest survey is confirmation, if it were needed, that the recovery will be a long, drawn-out and patchy process,” said Neil Greenaway.

“This is illustrated by the fact that at the end of last year, just over half of our respondents said they believed a proper recovery was 12 months or more away, a figure which has risen to two-thirds this time.

“The findings on planned job cuts also reveal a two-speed recovery with certain regions set to suffer far more than others. While London appears to be through the worst for example, clearly there is a lot more pain to come in regions such as the North East.”

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