House of Decline  
The finger of blame is once again being pointed towards the banks, this time for house prices being at a 21 month low. In a survey released today by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, estate agents warn that the decline in the housing market is due to the banks refusing to lend to home buyers.

According to figures from Halifax, house prices fell at their fastest rate for 18 months during April. The average cost of a home fell to 1.4% during April to £160,395, which is the lowest level since July 2009.

Geoffrey Holden, a RICS member based in East Sussex, said: “There is a continuing shortage of mortgage funds. Lenders are extremely reluctant to provide funds, making purchases difficult.”

According to the survey, the future for house prices remains bleak with 18 per cent more estate agents expecting house prices to fall rather than rise in the next three months.

Michael Newey, a spokesman for RICS, said: “Activity still remains subdued and it is difficult to see it picking up materially over the coming months.”

The Halifax group believe the decline is due to the ever-weakening consumer confidence and the economic downfall putting downward pressure on house prices.

Halifax housing economist Martin Ellis saw the future for housing prices in a more positive light, saying: "Signs of a modest tightening in housing market conditions, a relatively low burden of servicing mortgage debt and an increase in the number of people in employment are all likely to be providing support for house prices, curbing the pace of decline."

The figured from Halifax contrasted with figures released by Nationwide for April, which revealed that house prices had dropped by just 0.2% and had remained more or less unchanged.

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Equal Rights Yet More Burden 
The Government has published a guideline for employers about the new rules regarding agency workers employment rights. The rules, which will come in affect in October, will require agency workers to have equal employment rights once they have been working for the same employer for 12 weeks.

The Coalition’s guidelines aims to help businesses to comply with the new regulations that will see agency workers being given the same working and employment conditions as those employed directly by the employer, after completing a 12-week period of work for the same employer.

The equal rights were previously agreed by the Labour Government and have since been reviewed by the Coalition Government, as they were concerned about how the new regulations would impact on businesses. However, it was decided that reforms on the new rights would be too difficult to implement because of the threat of legal action by either the TUC or Europe, where the regulations originated.

The guideline for the new rulings has been welcomed by employer groups but they warn that the rules remain arduous. There are also concerns about the financial and administrative burden the new regulations will have on businesses.

Lawyers have said that the Government’s guidance will help bring some clarity to employers, especially surrounding the rules for bonuses, pay and benefits.

Julie Quinn, head of employment law firm Nabarro, said: “Giving agency workers the right to equal pay and benefits as permanent employees from October will have substantial cost implications for businesses that rely heavily on agency workers.

"While the draft guidance does help clarify the scope of the rights to equal pay, benefits and facilities for agency workers, it does nothing to ease concerns about the administrative and financial burdens on employers."

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State of the Rate 
Yesterday saw the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) voted to keep interest at the record rate of 0.5 per cent for the 27th month in a row.

Even though inflation is double the official two per cent target, it is thought by experts that the UK economy is still too fragile to support a rate rise at this stage.

The Markit/CIPS headline services PMI index fell to 54.3 in April from 57.1 in March. And although still indicating growth, it was below forecasts of 55.7.

Ian McCafferty, chief economic adviser to employers' group the CBI, said: "Given the recent mixed signals about the current strength of the economy, it is not surprising that MPC members have decided to keep interest rates on hold again.”

The weak PMI data has led analysts to predict that the rate may not rise until much later this year, with some even predicting 2012 as a suitable time for a rise.

Jonathan Samuels, chief executive of Dragonfly Property Finance, said: “Aside from the fact that inflation has fallen and the economy, at best, is flatlining, the majority of the MPC instinctively understands that raising rates at the current time could send delicate consumer confidence into freefall.

“People's disposable incomes are already in reverse but to squeeze their finances further through increased mortgage payments could be the coup de grace for both confidence and the economy.”

The Bank is now expected to downgrade its growth forecast for this year at its Inflation Report next week, following the disappointing 0.5 per cent growth in the first quarter of the year.

The minutes from yesterday's meeting will be released in two weeks' time, showing how the MPC members voted.

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Selling Abroad 
In the shadow of a report published yesterday, which showed that manufacturing in the UK grew at its slowest rate in seven months, a survey has indicated that companies are banking on exports to grow their business over the next three months.

Research by courier DHL Express shows that 46 per cent of small firms expect demand for their exports to grow to the end of June. And the Office for National Statistics confirmed that exports have grown by 11.5 per cent in the past year.

Phil Couchman, chief executive officer of DHL Express UK and Ireland, says: “It's very promising to see that UK businesses are confident about their future in this area.”

Almost half of manufacturing exporters expect exports to grow and see this demand coming from the US, France and Germany respectively. The picture for imports is also solid. In 2010, 29 per cent of manufacturing importers increased imports and 32 per cent expect to import more over the next three months.

The weak pound is also welcomed by businesses keen to boost exports, while nearly 60 per cent believe that the 2012 Olympics and the increased focus on the UK as a result will create a greater demand for British goods in the run-up to the event.

While the insights from businesses revealed an overall positive outlook for UK plc internationally, 65 per cent of businesses polled believe that keeping interest rates low is key to economic growth.

They are likely to get their wish, as it is widely expected for the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee to keep the rate where it is when the committee meets to decide tomorrow. In fact, analysts are now predicting no rise until at least the Autumn.

Exports are seen as key to Britain's economic growth, with 80 per cent of the firms surveyed calling on the government to give incentives to manufacturers to boost trade.

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Start-Ups With No Start-Up? 
Funding for Business Link is due to end in November and the move has sparked fears that the Government will risk failing start-ups through lack of support and guidance.

The departing head of the National Federation of Enterprise Agencies, George Derbyshire, believes that scrapping the business advisory service could result in the Government’s flagship social reforms being undermined as funding and support for enterprise will be deemed inadequate.

David Cameron has previously spoken of his goal to use enterprise in order to improve areas of the country that are dependent on public spending, which have been effected by the public spending cuts. However, with the Government putting an end to Business Link, Mr Derbyshire believes that this goal will be hindered.

Mr Derbyshire says Business Link is “vital for a proportion of the population” and that the dramatic cuts the service were driven by “financial reasons” rather than long-term thinking.

George Derbyshire said: “Business Link is regarded as an expensive solution. I would like to think in a different financial environment we would be not be quite so reliant on the volunteer model as we are now. Volunteers don’t come for free.”

He added: “There are people who have the confidence and the skills to start up themselves and make a success of their business, and the confidence and skills to access online resources, and there are those that have access to friends and colleagues who can help them. But there is a substantial proportion that do need face-to-face help to build up their confidence and acquire skills and knowledge.”

Business Link costs £190m a year to operate and is used by around a third of all businesses. The Conservatives decided in Opposition that they would scrap Business Link, and the Coalition has now implemented those plans. Contracts will be terminated in November and the regional development agencies will close in 2012.

So where can start-ups go for guidance? Start-ups searching for help will be directed to the Business Link website, which currently attracts around 1.6 million visits a month. Time will tell if this is sufficient support for start-ups…

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