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Business roundup: Numbers games

All the key economic indicators are showing improvements and this at a time when many economies, particularly those of our European neighbours, are continuing to struggle.

It’s good to have the evidence. The trouble with the big numbers, however, is that they lumber. Aggregate the results of the nation and we celebrate 0.2 per cent of this and 0.4 per cent of that.

Figures of this scale are barely noticed by those in the small and medium sized sector; they are the nil-nil of recovery indicators. What we like are numbers to chew on. So while the politicians glean glory from their increments, the rest of us look for more substantial evidence; and we look for it on our doorstep.

The Hot 100 index we published in Lancashire Business View in the summer satisfies in so many ways. It’s a league table of Lancashire-based businesses with pre-tax profit as its deciding measure.

It told us some remarkable things. We learned, for example, that the turnover of the best performing businesses, when aggregated, was up 17 per cent on the previous year. Employment in those businesses increased by a similar percentage with nearly 1,500 additional roles – or 15 per Hot 100 business. Profit was up too – across the piece by 27 per cent.

If only the fracking industry could be so clear cut with its numbers. It’s a story we’ve heard much of in 2013 and the debate will continue. The fact is we have a reserve of gas beneath our feet which could power our businesses and homes for decades. But while we clearly need to exploit it, the numbers are a mystery – we need to know who will benefit and by how much. We need to start with understanding the value of what we’re standing on and what that means for employment and opportunity. In short, I’m more convinced at the moment by the environmental claims from the pro-lobby than the economic ones.

But we must proceed; though with some caution and several demands. We’ve stated our position at Lancashire Business View and it’s worth rehearsing again: we want a profit levy directed back into the county; we want a guarantee that labour will be sourced within the county; we want a commitment from owners that a world-class centre of knowledge is created here.

First of all, we need a fully operational test-well in Lancashire that challenges economic and environmental claims. When we met the Prime Minister in the summer, he said that £1m per well would be distributed locally for the inconvenience caused and the money would go directly to the affected communities.

The mechanics for this are unclear, though it is certain he doesn’t want the cash flowing through the traditional local authority routes. This is intriguing and we look forward to hearing more.

The other big numbers issue of 2013 which will rumble on is HS2. Frankly I can’t get excited either by the speed or capacity claims and, save those directly involved in the industry, am yet to meet a Lancashire business which is.