Plans for mobile credit card

Google plans to join forces with MasterCard and Citigroup to allow users of its Android mobile phones to pay for purchases using 'near-field communications (NFC) technology, a reports has stated.

This gives the search engine giant a response to Orange’s UK plans to use Barclaycard’s technology for mobile phone ‘contactless’ payment. Apple is also rumoured to be considering using ‘NFC’ chips in its future iPhone products.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that “The planned payment system would allow Google to offer retailers more data about their customers and help them target ads and discount offers to mobile-device users near their stores. Google isn't expected to get a cut of the transaction fees.”

No clear details have been divulged of any manufacturer’s plan, Apps however, could be used to enable holders of credit cards to turn their phones into mobile wallets.

Google’s Chief Executive Eric Schmidt has repeatedly said that Google wants to take advantage of how much mobile phones know about their owners. Location data, combined with time and shopping history could be used to tailor ads, for instance. Mr Schmidt has also spoken enthusiastically about the potential for phones to be used to make payments.

In the UK, millions of contactless payment cards are already in circulation. Card companies, however, have declined to say how many users actually take advantage of the technology, rather than using their cards in the conventional ‘chip and pin’ way.

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Birmingham city centre to be car-free

A £127 million tram scheme meaning cars will be banned from some of Birmingham’s main city centre roads has taken a step forward.

Transport bosses have unveiled a new bridge which will carry the tracks from their current terminus at Snow Hill and through the heart of the city centre.

The concrete structure over Great Charles Street Queensway has cost £3.19 million and was finished within six months of the scheme being approved by the Government.

It will pave the way for the Midland Metro to travel along Bull Street, Corporation Street and on to Stephenson Street where it will stop outside the revamped New Street station.

Corporation Street, Bull Street and Stephenson Street will be traffic free, with buses rerouted.

Both projects which will mean trams running through the city centre for the first time in 60 years are scheduled for completion on 2015.

The extended tramway will act as a platform to expand the network to the proposed high speed rail terminus as Curzon Street.

As a impressive new computer-generated video of modern trams gliding though city was made public, transport chiefs promised that it would bring new jobs and investment.

“This is fantastic news for the Midland Metro and for the people who use it, especially as it has come in on time and on budget,” said Geoff Inskip, chief executive of regional transport authority Centro.

“This is a major step forward for a scheme that is going to bring massive economic benefits for the whole region and create thousands of jobs.”

Centro is inviting bids from manufacturers for a new fleet of bigger, faster trams and a maintenance depot in the Black Country.

Work will start to lay the tracks as early as the end of next year, once four new city centre bus interchanges are operating and have taken traffic off Corporation Street.

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Budget 2011: Fuel duty is cut by 1p

Although it might be a step too far to say measures in the Budget were a victory for the poor put-upon motorist at the petrol pump, the Chancellor did provide some relief for beleaguered drivers by not only postponing next month’s planned fuel duty increase but also cutting the current duty by 1p a litre.

Mr Osborne also announced that the approved mileage allowance payments for those using their own vehicles for work would rise from 40p to 45p per mile for the first 10,000 miles and 25p per mile thereafter.

The fuel duty move was welcomed by a variety of organisations representing motorists and by the haulage industry.

One leading Midlands haulier said he was “very pleased” but also pleasantly surprised.

Barry Proctor, managing director of Barry Proctor Services in Stoke-on-Trent said: “This will reduce our costs by £450 per vehicle per year. We run 20 vehicles so that equates to a saving of £9,000 per year.

“While the price of fuel can fluctuate the duty is there all the time.

“What we need now is peace in the Middle East to return to normal fuel prices. My only concern is the petrol retailers. I know they have been struggling but I would like to see the cut immediately reflected in the price at the pump.

“It would be nice to see that 1p a litre coming off tomorrow but they might claim they’ve already paid the duty on it.

“All in all I am delighted. I expected the fuel duty to be frozen but didn’t expect it to be reduced by 1p.”

Other good news for the haulage industry was the freezing of Vehicle Excise Duty on commercial vehicles over 3.5 tonnes.

Though Mr Proctor pointed out that this had been frozen for some time and no rise was anticipated, James Watkins, executive director, Business Voice West Midlands said: “With the West Midlands being the logistics hub of the UK and for some time the sector being hammered by rises in world oil prices, freight firms have been crying out for some kind of tax relief.

“We are pleased that George Osborne has heard this call and has put in place special measures for the industry.”

The British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association BVRLA chief executive John Lewis applauded the fuel duty cut but said there was still discrimination against diesel users.

“The Government has started delivering on its promise of developing a simpler, fairer tax system and at last we have a Budget that offers something for motorists,” he said.

“As expected the Chancellor has abandoned April’s 1p increase in fuel duty, but then surprised everyone by delaying the inflation increase until next year and reducing duty by 1p. His fair fuel stabiliser is ingenious, shifting the burden of taxation upstream when crude oil prices increase.

“Whether you are a haulier, a fleet manager, a commuter or a just someone trying to keep your family car on the road, this imaginative tax measure will have an instant impact on your weekly cash flow. 

“However, there is nothing ‘fair’ about the Government’s decision to maintain the three per cent diesel surcharge within the company car tax regime. This discriminatory tax against diesel fuel is totally out-of-date and needs to be abolished.”

Brian Madderson, chairman of the petrol section of the Retail Motor Industry, also welcomed the fuel duty cut, adding: “The news of the immediate 1p duty cut has been very well received by forecourt operators and their customers.”

Simon Hughes UK managing director of Christie + Co said the fuel duty cut would also provide a welcome boost to fuel retailers.

“Whilst convenience retail has remained resilient in these difficult economic times, margins on fuel have been under pressure, so the surprise announcement of a reduction in fuel duty will be seen as good news for the garage forecourt sector — and welcome relief for consumers,” he said.

National Farmers Union (NFU) West Midlands regional director David Collier said the fuel duty reduction was particularly good news for farmers, who are struggling more than most in the current economic climate.

He said: “The cancellation of the fuel duty escalator, accompanied by the 1p cut, will help businesses across the economy, including the food and farming industries that are struggling to absorb rising fuel costs.”

But the fuel duty cut was not welcomed in all quarters, with accusations motorists were being given “special treatment”.

Campaign for Better Transport chief executive Stephen Joseph said: “The Chancellor has chosen to give motorists a hand-out while leaving other transport users to face spiralling fares and service cuts.

“Rail users will see big fare rises year on year, while bus passengers are seeing services cut and fares increase as a result of a £133 million cut in Government support. Instead of cutting fuel duty, the Government should have done more to reduce our dependence on uncertain and declining oil supplies.”

And Friends of the Earth’s transport campaigner, Richard Dyer, said: “Short-term measures to tackle rocketing fuel prices are merely a sticking plaster - it’s our economy’s long-term fossil fuel dependency that urgently needs treatment.” 


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Building societies cash in

Community building societies in the West Midlands say they are profiting from a “flight to security” as post-recession savers seek a safe haven to store their money.

The Tipton & Coseley revealed it annual results this week and became the latest of the region’s smaller building societies to post strong profits – following in the footsteps of fellow mutuals The Dudley, Stafford Railway and Hanley Economic in the West Midlands.

All four societies have made moves to shore up their reserves in the last financial year as part of long-standing business models focused on minimal risk and minimal exposure to the money markets.

Chris Martin, chief executive of the Tipton & Coseley, said he was pleased after the mutual increased total assets by two per cent and more than doubled profits to £1.9 million, aided by a rise in mortgage lending.


It also increased reserves by more than seven per cent, to £25 million, and Mr Martin said the mutual was emerging from the recession strongly, in a market where savers are seeking security.

He said: “We were strong going into the recession but we are even stronger now.

“One of our priorities over the last few years has been to be very strong and liquid. Nobody knows what is around the corner and the outlook remains uncertain.

“People always felt that banks and building societies were safe and sound and one of the biggest lessons from the credit crunch has been that they can fail.”

Mr Martin said the rise in profitability was helpful to plans to maintain capital strength and the strong outlook has continued into this year. He said: “We are in a similar shape in 2011. The number of transactions and mortgages are about the same, maybe slightly up, but nowhere near the level of four or five years ago.

“We try to be cautious in the work we do, and nobody knows what is going to happen with unemployment levels.”

Fellow mutual Hanley Economic, based in Stoke-on-Trent, published results earlier in the year showing a 25 per cent drop in profits, to £727,000. But reserves rose 2.6 per cent to £27.9 million. Chief executive David Webster said local community societies have won admirers where once there was scorn as a result of a close eye on the bottom line.

He said there had been little change thus far in 2011, as the housing market has remained unchanged.

He said: “Maybe seven or eight years ago the models that local building societies had may have been seen as old-fashioned but the flight to security we have seen has meant people are more admiring of building societies like us.

“I would argue there is something of a renaissance of the smaller local players.Most of the small community societies I speak to are going well. We have got a prudent model which keeps the reserve pot topped up.”

Speaking about the rise in reserves, Mr Webster added: “The significance is to demonstrate the resilience of the society.

“Reducing reserves would be seen as a risk whereas increasing is seen as a sign of financial health.

“I would imagine that ongoing bolstering of reserves will continue in 2011 and 2012 for most societies. That is something that the regulators look at.”

Historic mutual Dudley Building Society revealed a 70 per cent rise in profits for 2010, with reserves rising by 5.7 per cent, to £25 million.

And it was a similar story at Stafford Railway Building Society, which continued with a business model focused on prudence and saw profits remain stable at £1.3 million with assets increasing by more than 10 per cent and group reserves growing by more than 11 per cent.

Chief executive Susan Whiting said reserves have become more important to savers.

She added: “The unthinkable has happened. People thought that banks couldn’t fail but now it has happened.

“They are a bit more worried and people want to see where their money is going, and that is a thing in our favour.”

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Sainsbury’s shares fall

Shares in the UK’s third-largest supermarket fell by 5 per cent this morning after a disappointing trading update.

J Sainsbury reported today that its like-for-like sales for the fourth quarter were up by 1 per cent, below market expectations, and against growth of 3.6% in the previous quarter.

Its like-for-like sales for the ten weeks to March 19 were 4.2 per cent but excluding fuel its underlying sales only rose 1 per cent, missing analysts’ expectations of 2 per cent growth.

Chief executive, Justin King, said the trading environment was tough and said consumers were feeling the pinch.

Mr King said consumers were battling “very significant” fuel price inflation, uncertain employment prospects and government spending cuts which meant that customers were “managing their spending carefully”.

Ahead of the Budget announcement today, Mr King told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, "The consumer is wary of the future.

"They expect tax rises, cuts, so we are now looking to the future; for government to show us how things get better in time.

"We are looking for a confirmation that the worst of the news that the chancellor needs to give us was given last year."

The supermarket giant has almost 900 stores in the UK and employs 150,000 people.

During the fourth quarter the firm opened three new supermarkets, including two replacement stores, one store extension and 21 convenience stores.

After the first half hour of trading in London the company's shares were down by 15.40 pence, or 4.35%, at 338.90p.

Rivals Tesco and Morrisons also saw their shares fall, by 2.4% and 2.17%.

Richard Hunter, head of UK equities at Hargreaves Lansdown, said: “Sainsbury’s is a stock which is currently out of favour with investors and today’s update is likely to do little to improve the situation.

“The initial share price hit reflects disappointment with sales growth, and this has in turn marked the rest of the sector down.”

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Modernisation at Royal Mail

Royal Mail is undergoing one of the most important change programmes undertaken in the UK. New delivery methods designed to enable Royal Mail employees to deal with the changes in the postal market - a decline in letters and an increase in packets - are being introduced. Significant reductions in the number of mail centres are also underway and around half of the 64 centres in 2010 could eventually close by 2016 or sooner.

Today, after more than nine months of consultation with the CWU under the 2010 Business Transformation agreement, Royal Mail is announcing its plan for rationalisation and investment in Greater London. With the number of postal items posted in London expected to more than halve between 2006 and 2014, it is imperative that Royal Mail continues the modernisation programme.

Following these consultations with the unions, it is likely that only five mail centres will be needed in Greater London. We expect the rationalisation of the mail centre estate to see the phased closure of the East London and South London mail centres to commence immediately. The mail centres remaining are: Croydon, Greenford, Jubilee (Feltham), Romford and Mount Pleasant. New accommodation is also being sought for the administrative and support staff based at Rathbone Place. The Greater London rationalisation programme is expected to achieve annual savings of £30 million.

Mount Pleasant is a large facility which needs significant investment to handle the postal volumes in London, including the change in the mix of items. Royal Mail expects to invest £69 million in Greater London as part of the UK-wide modernisation programme; of this, £32 million will be invested in Mount Pleasant. The latest automation equipment will be installed there; working conditions will be significantly improved.

Royal Mail would like to thank the CWU for its valuable input including a report produced by the union. Following the union's input, East London mail centre will close six months later than originally planned. The company is also providing extended outplacement facilities for its employees in London, as discussed with the CWU. The consultation on the London mail centres commenced in early June. In November 2010, Roger Poole and Peter Harwood were asked to assist in bringing the review to a successful conclusion. Both Roger Poole and Peter Harwood had played a significant role in the 2010 Business Transformation agreement.

After much study and careful thought, Royal Mail believes it will not have to resort to compulsory redundancies to manage the reduction in the number of employees. With people demonstrating reasonable flexibility, Royal Mail expects that everyone who wants to remain in the business will be able to do so. As a result of the rationalisation programme, we expect the number of people employed in London will decline by approximately 751. The company has in place a well-developed programme to help its people to adjust to these changes.

Consultations with Unite/CMA will also begin shortly on reducing the number of Royal Mail operational line managers across the UK by up to 1,000 through voluntary means. This follows a separate review of managers in head office departments which will result in 1,700 people leaving the Group when this specific initiative concludes. The company has reduced the number of employees by around 65,000 since 2002.

Mark Higson, Managing Director of Operations and Modernisation, said: "Royal Mail's modernisation programme, which is vital to ensuring a successful future for the letters and parcels business, depends on having the right number of people in our business as well as deploying the right technology and equipment.

"We are conscious of the impact today's announcement will have on our staff in London. It is hard to reduce job numbers at any time; we are committed to doing everything we can, in line with our agreement with the union, to make these changes on a voluntary basis. We will be providing specialist outplacement advice to help our people affected by this announcement to look for new opportunities outside Royal Mail."

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Development of HP Sauce factory

A £35 million development to convert the former HP sauce factory site in Birmingham into a cash and carry and spice distribution centre has been officially launched with a ground-breaking ceremony.

Almost four years after HP Sauce workers left the Aston factory for the last time amid emotional scenes after Heinz switched production to Holland, work to redevelop the site has begun.

The factory was reduced to rubble in July 2007 and Black Country-based East End Foods bought the site for construction of a 100,000 sq ft wholesale cash and carry and distribution centre.

The first £9 million phase of the building work will create 95 new jobs for the Aston area, and will include a 30,000 sq ft Urban Farm and Technology Centre.

Phase two of the development is due to start next year, creating more than 200 jobs, with the construction of a 15-storey four-star luxury hotel and 1,200 capacity conference centre costing £26 million.

East End Foods chairman Tony Deep Wouhra said: “We are very excited that work is underway for this project. The site is a prominent gateway to Birmingham and one with an important legacy for the city and the food industry.

“We are proud to be continuing this association with a development that will secure its future as a vibrant commercial centre for food innovation and enterprise.”

Chris Dyer, director of lead contractor John Sisk and Son said: “As a local contractor, we are delighted to contribute to the future of an important industry for Birmingham.

“This project is on a prestigious location with a long heritage of manufacturing.”


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Marston's reveals rise in beer sales

Midland pub group Marston’s has revealed a four per cent rise in beer volumes as it makes “good progress” in each of its divisions.

Wolverhampton-based Marston’s (MARS) said it expected profit for the first half ending April 2 to be in line with its estimates after the latest performance.

The company, which has more than 2000 pubs across the UK, echoed Britain’s biggest pubs group Punch Taverns , which last week saw progress in all areas of its business, and said it was on track to meet its full-year expectations.

For the 23 weeks to March 12, like-for-like sales at Marstons’ largest division – Marston’s Inns and Taverns – rose 2.4 per cent, including food sales growth of 4.7 percent. 

“In Marston’s Beer Company, our own-brewed beer volumes are up 4 percent versus last year, comparing favourably to a UK ale market down by around seven per cent,” the company said in a statement.

In January, Marston’s had said its sales grew over Christmas, driven by strong demand for its pub grub, as the company shrugged off the impact of the snow in December.

Marston’s shares have fallen 16 per cent in the last three months, valuing the company at £532 million.

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CPP acquires off road vehicle maker

Coventry-based coachbuilder CPP Global Holdings Ltd has acquired Bowler Off Road Limited.

The acquisition by the company - which is also in the process of taking over the Spyker sportscar business - of the Derbyshire-based manufacturer of the Nemesis high-performance cross country racer was completed in January 2011.

Brendan O’Toole, managing director of CPP, said: “This acquisition is extremely positive news for fans and customers of Bowler vehicles.

"I have followed the brand closely for several years and am delighted to have the opportunity to take the Bowler brand to new heights on the basis of very exciting plans. I’m looking forward to working with Drew Bowler and the exceptionally talented team at Bowler to bring these plans to fruition.

"This development is another step in CPP’s strategy to grow as a collection of complementary specialist automotive businesses.”

Drew Bowler, managing director of Bowler, said: “I’m very excited that we are joining the CPP group of companies.

"Bowler will expand and reach its full potential thanks to the access we now have to greater resources in a number of respects: finances, the highly skilled workforce, its technical capabilities and advanced facilities.

"We will continue to do what we do best, which is developing, engineering and racing our cars. CPP will bring first-rate commercial and manufacturing expertise to our business, ensuring it meets the quality and integrity that our customers will expect.

"And there are dramatic plans for the business over the longer term.”

Bowler was founded by Drew Bowler in 1999 and produces its Nemesis high performance off-road racer, based on current Land Rover technology, to meet the FIA T1 specification for the World Cup Cross Country Championship.

Several Bowlers run by private customer race teams have completed the annual Paris-Dakar Rally over the last decade.

Development and engineering will remain at Bowler’s current facilities in Belper, Derbyshire. Production, including of the Nemesis EXR road-going variant from early 2012, will be transferred to CPP in Coventry.

CPP’s acquisition of Bowler follows an announcement of February 24 that it signed a Memorandum of Understanding to acquire the assets of the Spyker sports car business from its publicly-listed holding company, Spyker Cars NV.


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Calls to keep Modec in UK hands

Collapsed electric van pioneer Modec must stay in UK hands if the country is to maintain its lead in low-carbon vehicle production, automotive experts have warned.

The firm, which exports electric trucks worldwide from its Coventry base, called in administrators last week, sending shockwaves around the West Midland supply chain where it sources the majority of components.

On a visit to Coventry, Prime Minister David Cameron, who officially opened Modec in 2007, labelled the firm a “pathfinder” and expressed hopes it would be sold.

“I wish for a good outcome because there is no doubt in my mind that we are going to see a lot of road transport move toward electric vehicles and this was something of a pathfinder,” Mr Cameron told the Post.


He insisted there was adequate support for the electric vehicle sector, pointing to the £5,000 subsidy the Government is paying for electric cars. But that comes as little comfort for Modec, which had consistently called for better support for the electric delivery vehicle sector over the past few years.

Modec’s collapse has alarmed automotive sector experts in the West Midlands, who fear its technology and intellectual property could be snapped up by an overseas buyer.

The firm had operated at a loss since it was set up by former Manganese Bronze chairman Lord Borwick, and its collapse came after a rescue deal with American joint venture partner Navistar fell through at the last minute.

Electric van sales had proved disappointing in the recession and the firm had pinned its hopes for survival on securing the deal.

Lord Borwick, whose Federated Investments vehicle is the financial force behind Modec, said the timing of its collapse was ironic but in the end the company had not received orders in the volumes it needed.

“It’s achieved wonderful things mechanically and we’re the first people to start a vehicle business in Coventry since before the war,” he said. “But I’m afraid it hasn’t been successful financially.

“You couldn’t imagine a better structure than oil at $120 a barrel and all the uncertainty over supplies in the Middle East.

“It must be the most perfect time to start an electric vehicle business.However, we have had little takeup.”

Modec sold to customers like Tesco, Fedex and UPS, but Lord Borwick said the appetite of big firms for going electric had diminished in the past couple of years.

“In the recession people don’t take risks and they cut their budgets,” he said. “In a boom this would have been easy.”

Modec revealed in its accounts last year that it faced a difficult funding position and on its collapse owed a reported £40 million.

Along with money owed to Federated Investments, Navistar had also loaned Modec cash as a senior secured lender to the firm.

Administrators from Zolfo Cooper in Birmingham were called in last Friday and immediately made 26 people, half its workforce, redundant, but expressed hopes they could sell the firm.

Since then Oxfordshire electric car technology firm Liberty cars has come forward to say it is interested in putting together a deal to save the company.

Rachel Eade, who supports the automotive sector in the West Midlands through manufacturing organisation MAS-WM, said the collapse of Modec dealt a “body blow” the region’s low carbon industry.

She said: “We hope Modec is quickly acquired by another Midland or UK company so that we can retain the IP, design and technology for future exploitation.

“We must make sure that the UK benefits from the ground-breaking work already completed.”

John Rider, chairman of the Institute of Directors in the region, added: “Surely someone in the British motor industry will pick this up.

“Certainly the IOD would hope it would stay in British hands.”

Liberty Electric Cars managing director Ian Hobday said: “We’re very keen to pull together a deal which will find some way of saving the company.

“It borders on criminal that a company with such an innovative product line at the forefront of electric vehicle technology should find themselves in the situation they are in.

“There is some criticism that can be levelled at Government for lack of support for this part of the electric vehicle industry.

“There’s nothing for trucks – contrast that with the subsidies available for electric cars Modec could be employing thousands, not a hundred, if we had a decent chance.”

Ms Eade said it was difficult to measure the impact of Modec’s collapse on the West Midlands’ supply chain.

“There are definitely two companies that we know of who have been heavily involved in the project, while anecdotal information suggests there could be quite a few more providing some form of components.

“Volumes for suppliers will be relatively low so the immediate ‘hit’ should not be too bad, but as an organisation we will be available to offer advice and one-to-one support to any company affected.”

Lichfield firm Zytek makes the drivetrains for the electric vans from its base in Staffordshire.

The firm’s sales and marketing director Simon Tremble said he thought there was a good chance Modec would be bought.

“One would hope the business would continue in some form or another,” he said. “We also sell to Navistar which is using similar products to Modec so we are assured of a future in that environment in the USA.”



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Antiques are a good investment

Art and antiques are continuing to provide the best long-term value for investors looking for a tangible return on their purchases.

Traders across the Midlands are still reporting increased sales with rural businesses particularly faring well, according to specialist dealers.

BBC Antiques Roadshow expert Judith Miller said she expected antiques and fine art values to rise – especially while the bank rate offered such a meagre return for investors.

Ms Miller, who will be appearing at the Antiques For Everyone exhibition at the Birmingham NEC (March 17-20), said many people were now looking at collectibles as an alternative to more traditional investments. 

“Savings in the bank are earning next to nothing so people wanting to invest, especially those with larger sums, are entering the market.

“This is particularly true at the higher end of the price range. Instead of people spending a few hundred pounds they are now spending thousands,” commented Ms Miller.

She said gold and silver were increasing in value with quality jewellery showing substantial gains.

“The market remains a strong performer for buyers looking to invest in more tangible assets to guard against the uncertain economic picture. This is particularly clear in the increase in sales in the higher value brackets.

“Everyone has something that they can collect from rock and pop memorabilia to military history. Traditional items such as silver and jewellery will always do well in difficult economic times, but Chinese art and ceramics are increasingly popular. The recent surge in prices in this sector shows no sign of abating with demand at an all-time high.”

Young buyers were also finding antiques a more attractive investment proposal, especially in areas like rock and pop memorabilia, costume jewellery and pop art from the 1950s and 1960s.

“Prices have risen substantially. Certain items of costume jewellery can now fetch thousands of pounds,” said Ms Miller.

She urged everyone to check old items of jewellery that had belonged to family members to find if any high-value items remained undiscovered.

Ms Miller said the trade was still reeling from the recent discovery of the Chinese porcelain vase that astounded its owners when it was valued at millions of pounds. She said similar items could be sitting on the mantelpieces of unsuspecting households waiting to net a fortune for their owners.

“When the palaces in China were looted all those years ago no-one knew exactly what was taken. Other things would have found their way to the market so there are bound to be more shocks to the trade,” said Ms Miller.

Ms Miller will be joined at the NEC show by fellow Roadshow expert Mark Hill.

The duo will be scouring the exhibition halls to find their favourite items and sharing their expert knowledge with visitors to the fair over the four days.

Ms Miller said: “We’ve both attended the fair many times before and we always find little gems to add to our personal collections, but this time we will be sharing our personal ‘‘top picks’’ with everyone who visits.”

With more than 300 specialist dealers exhibiting more than 100,000 items the fair, which is now in its 26th year, offers collectors a huge selection of fine art and antiques.

Items for sale include Georgian and Victorian furniture, fine English silver, impressive British and European works of art, highly collectable pottery and porcelain and jewellery from the past 300 years.

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Rising fuel costs could wipe out SME's

Petrol rises could be the last straw for under pressures SMEs, threatening to send some under, a corporate recovery expert has warned.

John Kelly, regional managing partner in the Birmingham office of Begbies Traynor, cautioned that the surge could tip the world back into recession.

“Prolonged high oil prices are a very real threat to the UK’s fragile recovery,” he stressed.

His comments came as revolution and unrest continued to sweep the Middle East following the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. 

The possibility of Western military action in Libya in support of the insurgency there, and concern that Saudi Arabia could be next, may mean petrol costs going higher yet, noted Mr Kelly.

He said: “‘Peak oil’ is the point at which global oil production reaches its maximum – the risk of this contributed to the reality of the financial meltdown of 2007. And the 2008-09 recession was preceded by record high prices for oil and other commodities.

“Today, according to the AA’s report for February, that is happening again, with average pump prices for both petrol and diesel at new record highs – unleaded up 0.5 pence per litre on the month to 128.8ppl and the oil price at $103 a barrel.

“But oil prices had been rising again before the Libyaeffect.

“The concern is that this will tip the UKback into recession even though the Saudis have offered to supply extra oil to cover the disruption to Libyan supplies.

“If high prices continue this will inevitably put an extra squeeze on household budgets and already struggling SMEs. This is made worse by inflation already running at twice the Bank of England’s target rate with the spectre of interest rate rises looming to control this.

“The price of oil affects so many fundamentals – from the disposable income available to already stretched households to the fixed overheads of many businesses. SMEs are finding it increasingly difficult to pass on price rises. It is an extremely worrying time.”

Mr Kelly said it remained to be seen whether influences could be brought to bear to stem the price jump, given the AA survey highlighted how last month the Government tax take stood at 62.4 per cent and some European countries had seen a drop in the cost of fuel during late January.

“Given the scale of this country’s deficit the Government has little room for manoeuvre on tax and, as oil prices are a world issue, they are largely in the hands of others. Indeed it could be worse – the stronger pound has so far cushioned some of the blow.”

Northern Ireland has the highest price for unleaded petrol at 129.9ppl; Yorkshireand Humberside recorded the lowest at 127.8ppl.

The average for the West Midlands is 128.6ppl and for the South East it is 129.5ppl.

Supermarket prices for unleaded also rose over the month by 0.7ppl to 127.4ppl. The gap between supermarket prices and the UK average for unleaded has fallen to 1.4ppl.

The UK has the eighth highest unleaded price in Europe and the second highest diesel price.



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UK billionaires on the increase

The number of billionaires in the UK has increased to 32 with the Duke of Westminster Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor again named the country’s richest man.

Despite the property slump, the 59-year-old landowner increased his worth to 13 billion dollars  - but still only managed 57th on the Forbes global rich list.

The world’s richest man according to the Forbes list was Mexican Telecoms tycoon Carlos Slim Helu, who topped the list for a second year and increased his wealth by 20.5 billion dollars to 74 billion dollars.

Microsoft boss Bill Gates was second with 56 billion dollars and investor Warren Buffett was third with 50 billion dollars.?The UK has three more billionaires than last year.

Property tycoons David and Simon Reuben were second on the UK rich list with 8 billion dollars, followed by high street mogul Sir Philip Green with 7.2 billion dollars.

The Reubens were placed 114th overall while Green was 132nd.

Virgin boss Richard Branson, landowner Charles Cadogan and Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone were next, each with a fortune of 4.2 billion dollars.

The UK top 10 also featured Barclay brothers, David and Frederick, with a 3.2 billion dollar fortune.

And other UK billionaires included Harry Potter author JK Rowling who is worth one billion dollars and has been on the list for a number of years.

The richest UK resident was Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, who was sixth richest in the world, with a 31.1 billion dollar fortune.

There were six “Facebook billionaires” on the global list, including founders Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin, as well as the world’s youngest billionaire Dustin Moskovitz, who is just 26-years-old, and Napster entrepreneur Sean Parker.

The Forbes 25th list of the richest people on the planet saw the number of billionaires increase by 214 to a record 1,210, with an average net worth of 3.7 billion dollars each.

For the first time in more than a decade, the number of billionaires in Asia (332) was more than Europe (300), while the US continued to have the most billionaires, with 413.

China, which has the world’s second largest economy after the US, had 115 billionaires, while Russia had 101 billionaires.

Moscow was home to more billionaires than any other city in the world, with 79 of the world’s wealthiest people choosing to live in the Russian capital.

Europe’s richest person was Frenchman Bernard Arnault, of luxury brand group LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton), who moved into fourth spot overall with a fortune of 41 billion dollars.

There were 300 European billionaires, 50 more than last year, with 72% self-made.

And although most managed to increase their wealth last year, not everybody did.

Ikea Founder Ingvar Kamprad was the year’s biggest loser, dropping 151 places to 162 with his fortune plunging from 23 billion dollars to six billion dollars.




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Cadbury managers to be grilled over tax avoidance plans

Senior managers from the American firm which bought Birmingham based Cadbury will be grilled by MPs next week over the decision to move its headquarters to Switzerland to avoid taxes.

But Kraft chief executive Irene Rosenfeld will not attend - despite a strongly worded personal plea from Black Country MP Adrian Bailey, chair of the Commons Business Committee.

Instead, the committee will hear evidence from Marc Firestone, Kraft Executive vice-president, Trevor Bond the former president of Cadbury who is now a senior Kraft executive, and Nick Bunker, president of Kraft Foods, UK & Ireland.

The committee, which is led by Mr Bailey and also includes MPs Margot James (Con Stourbridge) and Nadhim Zahawi (Con Stratford upon Avon), will raise a series of concerns, which have emerged following Kraft’s controversial takeover of the British chocolate-maker.


Top of the list will be the decision to move key high-level roles to Zurich - save as much as £60 million a year in corporation tax.

Mr Bailey (Lab West Bromwich West) has already said he is “disgusted” by the decision.

They may also question the decision to downsize the standard Dairy Milk bar from 140g to 120g - while keeping the price the same.

And they may re-open the question of Kraft’s decision to move production of products including Crunchies, Curly Wurlys and Double Deckers to Poland before Christmas, resulting in the loss of hundreds of British jobs at Cadbury’s former Somerdale factory near Bristol.

However, Kraft chief executive Irene Rosenfeld has once again refused a request to appear before the committee in person.

Mr Firestone faced a barrage of hostile questions when he met the MPs at an earlier hearing last year and was dismissed as a “PR man”.

Earlier this year, Mr Bailey wrote to Ms Rosenfeld urging her to attend the hearing.

He said in his letter: “I had hoped that you would have seen this as an opportunity to demonstrate, in person, your company’s commitment to Cadbury and to its heritage.

"As you know, the takeover of Cadbury by Kraft was badly received in the United Kingdom and there was a high degree of scepticism over the motive for the takeover, the way in which it was conducted and Kraft’s future strategy for the company.

“That skepticism remains and your refusal to attend a committee of the House of Commons will do nothing to change that position.”

But the MPs have now reluctantly agreed to interrogate other Kraft managers in Ms Rosenfeld’s absence, in a Commons committee room on Tuesday, March 15.





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Giant wave power device created

Engineers in Warwick have helped to create a giant wave power device, which director’s hope will make a big splash in a £150 billion market.

At 135ft long and weighing 250 tonnes the PB150 PowerBuoy device, created by Ocean Power Technologies (OPT), has a peak-rated power output of 150kW – equivalent to the energy consumption of approximately 150 homes.

Angus Norman, chief executive of OPT in the UK and Europe, said talks had already taken place with potential buyers.

He expects opportunities to open up in the sector as governments seek energy security and to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. 

The new product has been based on normal ocean-going buoys and generates energy through an upright spar working in conjunction with a giant float moving with the waves.

Mr Norman said: “The power buoy that we just completed, the PB150, which we expect to take into commercialisation, is the first buoy built by OBT of this size, and to a great extent it has been done in Warwick and the UK.

“It is designed to match normal ocean-going buoys,” he added. “They have been there for 100 years, so the design has matured. They buoy moves up and down with the waves and reacts with the spar.

"It’s like a doughnut and a stick – if you can imagine the doughnut going up and down and the stick holding still.

“The interaction operates the piston which goes up and down to create energy. It is a simple process but to get to delivery takes a lot of design and innovation.”

The PB150 PowerBuoy is the largest and most powerful wave power device designed by OPT to date.

The firm, which employs 10 people directly in Warwick, but has about 30 people at any one time, has been working on the project since 2006.

However, Mr Norman said it built on 15 years of work at the company. OPT has previously installed wave technology devices in Hawaii which are linked back to the grid, and Mr Norman said it was important to be able to compete on cost.

He said: “We need to be able to compete with the cost of fossil fuels in the future. In the UK the energy sources need to be replaced and it is going to be new nuclear and wind – but the answer isn’t any one thing.

“We expect to compete with these industries.”

He added: “The market is massive. We believe it is a £150 billion market.

“Clearly Europe and the UK is very important to us, as is the west coast of North America and some of the east coast.

“In Japan we have just signed an agreement with Mitsui Engineering and we also have agreements in Australia.

“Globally it is a big business.”

The PowerBuoy is being prepared for ocean trials at a site off Scotland’s north-eastern coast after being built and assembled at Invergordon.

A second PB150 is already under construction in the US for a proposed utility-scale project in Oregon, and the company is involved in other planned projects in Australia, Japan and Europe that may use it.

Mr Norman said: “We are looking at several opportunities to build these devices in multiples – some in the UK and northern Europe.”




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John Lewis to raise £50m

Employee-owned John Lewis Partnership has announced it is raising £50 million through a retail bond issue aimed at customers.

John Lewis Partnership, which owns supermarket Waitrose and is Britain’s biggest department store by sales, has raised finance through bond markets before, but the “partnership” bond is the first time that it has let its customers invest.

The bond will be available to 1.5 million cardholders and 70,000 staff, or “partners”.

The launch comes ahead of its 2010 results, which are expected to reveal the Partnership’s profits rose 15 per cent to about £350 million. 

The company, which has a flagship store in Solihull, has just announced plans for a new store in Birmingham.

Charlie Mayfield, chairman of the John Lewis Partnership, said: “The Partnership Bond issue is in keeping with HM Treasury’s desire to develop non-bank lending channels to help improve macroeconomic resilience in the longer term.

“We want to explore alternative ways of raising funds as part of the Partnership’s borrowing programme, and to reach out to the retail investor.

“With interest rates and yields close to historical lows we believe our cardholders and partners will welcome a competitively priced, innovative product of this nature with the added comfort of the John Lewis Partnership brand and reputation.”

The five-year fixed rate bond will be offered to qualifying individuals to invest a lump sum of between £1,000 and £10,000, in multiples of £1,000.



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Birmingham City’s success to boost Midlands

Birmingham City’s Carling Cup success is being tipped to boost the West Midlands’ economy as European football is set to make a return to the region.

The victory over Arsenal at Wembley – and impending entry into the UEFA Europa League competition – has put the club into the international spotlight, and is a step closer to making the club one of the country’s elite.

It is often said that Manchester benefits on an international scale from association with major football clubs and inward investment chiefs are predicting a wider impact on the West Midlands economy with the city raising its profile across the globe.

Meanwhile, leisure and hospitality firms around Blues’ St Andrew’s ground are expecting to profit as the ground hosts European nights. 

Wouter Schuitemaker, investment director for inward investment body Business Birmingham, said: “Birmingham City’s success on Sunday is a fantastic win for the city, not just in sporting terms, but also as part of its wider global profile – the final was shown in over 130 countries.

“As a city, Birmingham needs to continue to raise its international visibility to attract visitors and drive inward investment.

“Sporting teams often have high levels of cut-through with business audiences, and the positive reputation of a city abroad in this demographic gives a halo effect which, long term, can support economic growth.”

Birmingham City snatched a dramatic late winner in the Carling Cup Final against Arsenal last weekend, to win the game 2-1.

Deloitte’s 2010 Annual Review of Football Finance shows the club stands to boost its income by competing on a European stage.

The four top-earning clubs in the Premier League – Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool – all competed in the Champions League, the premier European competition.

The participants in the UEFA Cup – the previous incarnation of the Europa League – were also among the top performing clubs. Tottenham Hotspur recorded the fifth-highest turnover, while Everton recorded the ninth and Portsmouth 13th, as increased revenue from the turnstiles boosted income.

Elsewhere, managers of businesses around Birmingham City’s ground are looking forward to sharing in Blues’ sales boost after the historic win.

Ben Davies, manager of the Anchor Inn pub near St Andrew’s, said the win would be good for business as midweek sales will be boosted.

Mr Davies – an Aston Villa fan – said: “We get a lot of away fans in for the home matches, so from that respect it is good news.

“The pub is rammed before and after the games, so the extra games will help.

“And there will be extra sales on days where you wouldn’t have normally expected it. There will be more midweek games, which is good for us.”

Anand Desai, general manager of the Birmingham Hotel in Small Heath, a mile away from the ground, said he gets few football fans through the door at the moment, but hoped to attract some coming in from continental Europe.

He said: “It is the first time the club has been in Europe, so hopefully there will be people coming over. We will see.

“Obviously it’s going to happen next year so hopefully it will be good news for us.”




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Alstom wins £18m grid deal

Midland firm Alstom Grid has won an £18 million contract to supply electricity generation equipment to National Grid.

The company will design, supply and commission two quadrature booster units – which control the flow of real power on electricity transmission networks – which will also be built at its transformer factory in Stafford.

The contract will create additional work for the 300-strong workforce over the next three years.

Alstom is involved with the power generation, rail transport infrastructure and electricity transmission sectors and employs around 6,500 people across the UK, more than 5,000 of which are based throughout the Midlands region operating out of its sites in Stafford, Rugby, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Derby.

The first Quadrature Booster will be designed and manufactured in 2012.

Mark Wilson, head of sales and rendering at Alstom Grid’s transformer factory, said: “This latest contract award by National Grid confirms the industry’s confidence in our technical competence of the design and manufacture of transformers.

“Both boosters will be an enhanced version of our existing proven design.”

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Taylor Wimpey wary despite return to profit

Taylor Wimpey has announced a return to the black but said it continued to run the business cautiously amid pressure on mortgage lending.

Taylor Wimpey (TW.), which was created from the merger of Solihull-based Taylor Woodrow and George Wimpey in 2007 and has shifted its focus onto maximising the value of each home sold, said pre-tax profits before exceptional items were £75.1 million in 2010, against losses of £96.1 million the previous year.

It said it had been encouraged by sales rates and prices so far this year but added that constrained mortgage lending and the continued economic uncertainty meant it remained cautious about prospects going forward.

The group will stick to its strategy of maximising margins rather than volume growth and said it was on track to achieve its target of double-digit operating margins from its UK business in 2012. The UK operating margin jumped to 7.1% in 2010, from 1.7% in 2009.


The year also saw Taylor agree new lending terms with its banks in a move that has removed a number of operational restrictions. It has also begun the process of selling its North American housebuilding division.

The UK business completed a total of 9,962 homes last year, down from 10,186 in 2009 but with an average selling price 7% higher at £171,000.

It said it would continue to work with the mortgage industry to identify ways of increasing mortgage supply, such as its recently launched Take 5 product that uses an insurance-backed guarantee to provide a 95% mortgage.

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New additions boost Birmingham LEP

The Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership is to be one of the biggest in the country after two more local authorities signed up as members.

Redditch and Wyre Forest, both in Worcestershire, are to join East Staffordshire, Lichfield, Tamworth, Bromsgrove and Cannock Chase in the partnership, which also includes Birmingham and Solihull.

It means the partnership will cover a population of two million people, making it one of the largest and potentially one of the most influential in the country.

Councils and business leaders across the country have been forming LEPs at the request of the Government following the decision to scrap regional development agencies, the massive regional bodies set up by Labour.

However, many are much smaller. For example, Worcestershire has its own LEP to cover the county, which includes Worcester, Malvern Hills, Wychavon and Bromsgrove as well as Redditch and Wyre Forest, which will be members of both organisations.

Bridget Blow, interim chairman of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP, said: “We are delighted at this development and excited to work with business and local authorities from North Worcestershire in the interests of our local businesses and communities.

“The Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP is now one of the largest in the country with a population of two million people and 950,000 existing jobs.

“We have the enthusiasm and drive to work together to create and support a globally competitive knowledge economy – which is the natural home for Europe’s entrepreneurs and wealth creators. “

John Campion, Leader of Wyre Forest District Council said: “Wyre Forest District Council, as part of the north Worcestershire group of councils, is delighted to be a member of Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership.

"Being a member will mean we will be at the heart of the decision-making process and will it give us an influential role in the economic success of the area.”

Mike Whitby, leader of Birmingham City Council, said: ‘‘With the welcome additions of Redditch and Wyre Forest I believe we must now be one of the country’s largest, and most significant, representing a population of almost two million people.”

The LEP’s development board has identified a number of areas where action is urgently needed to deliver private sector- led growth and jobs.

They include supporting the runway extension at Birmingham Airport; improving planning regimes to promote growth; expanding access to finance for small and medium-sized businesses; developing an employer-led approach to skills and employment which sees young people, in particular, developing the attributes and expertise to work in local businesses; and providing effective and relevant business support and mentoring.

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Order books grow at Carillion

Carillion, construction firm based in Wolverhampton, has revealed a seven per cent rise in profits after enjoying a slightly larger order book.

The construction firm said it was in a good position for 2011 thanks to an enhanced performance in the last year.

Carillion, which last month agreed to buy energy-saving scheme operator Eaga for 306.5 million pounds to enter the high-growth energy efficiency market, posted an underlying full-year pretax profit of £188.1 million.

That was up from £175.5 million in 2009 and better than analysts had forecast.

The company also said that focusing on growth overseas and winning support services contracts in Britain as local authorities try to cut costs should help it overcome tough trading conditions.

Chairman Philip Rogerson said the company anticipated the global economic environment to continue to make trading conditions difficult, particularly in the UK, but noted that Carillion had a pipeline of contract opportunities up it’s sleeve.

He said: “Therefore, the board believes that Carillion is well positioned to make further progress in 2011 and to achieve its objectives for medium-term growth, namely, to double its revenues in Canada and in the Middle East and to deliver substantial growth in UK support services.”

With a forward order book worth a reported £18.2 billion, up from £17.9 billion a year earlier as a rush in its support services contract pipeline, to £8.3 billion from £5.5 billion, make up for falls in other places.


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HS2 will 'redraw' UK economic map

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has launched a consultation on plans for a high speed railway network by insisting the project would "redraw" Britain's economic map. Announcing the five-month consultation into the proposals for the £32billion HS2 line, initially linking London with Birmingham, Mr Hammond said the country faced a "once in a lifetime" opportunity to create more jobs and prosperity.?Speaking at Birmingham's International Convention Centre, the minister claimed the controversial project would deliver £44 billion of benefits to the UK economy.

Urging all interested parties to have their say on the plans, which would eventually link the Midlands with the North of England, Mr Hammond said: "This will be one of the most extensive and potentially far-reaching government consultations in history."

Mr Hammond told an audience drawn from local council representatives and business groups that the new line could transform the UK economy.

"The time for high speed rail in Britain has come," he said. "We have before us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, an opportunity to reshape our economic geography.

"Too often in the past, Britain has baulked at the big decisions."

The minister, who praised the success of similar schemes in Asia and parts of Europe, added: "We must invest in Britain's future.

"We cannot afford to be left behind - investing in high speed rail now is vital to the prosperity of future generations."

It is envisaged that 14 trains or more an hour will run on the HS2 high-speed rail project, each with up to 1,100 seats. The new HSR network could shift as many as six million air trips and nine million road trips a year to rail.

Last week almost 70 top bosses, including CBI director-general John Cridland and former British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh, gave their backing for HS2.

But Lizzie Williams, chairman of the Stop HS2 group, believes the project is "a complete waste of taxpayers' money when we can least afford it".

Network Rail (NR) said HS2 would be "a hugely significant enhancement to the national rail network and will unlock tremendous capacity to tackle, what will be by 2024, critical overcrowding on the West Coast Main Line".

Michael Roberts, chief executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies said a new HSR line was "key if we are to meet the transport challenges that will face the country over the coming decades".

Ashwin Kumar, rail director of rail customer watchdog Passenger Focus, said: "Wherever this new line is built, there will be winners and losers.

"It is important that the Government and industry continues to discuss the implications of this decision with affected communities and addresses concerns."

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) described the consultation process as "a complete train wreck".

Ralph Smyth, the CPRE's senior transport campaigner, said: "The Government has been so focused on trying to catch up and overtake the French on high-speed rail (HSR) that they have failed to ensure the public get their fair say."

He added that the consultation amounted to "a single route option, which the Government has already made up its mind to favour", that would be followed "by a Parliamentary petitioning procedure that has changed little since the days of 19th century railway barons".

He went on: "Instead of a Punch and Judy exchange of competing claims between pros and antis, the country needs a fair, open and informed debate about HSR."

The Government argues that with long-distance services transferred to the new high-speed network, large amounts of space would be freed up on the West Coast, East Coast and Midland Main Lines, allowing for an expansion of commuter, regional and freight services on these lines.

Subject to the outcome of the consultation, the Government intends to secure powers to deliver each phase of its proposed HSR network by means of the hybrid bill process.

Construction of any new network would be expected to begin early in the next Parliament, with the line to the West Midlands completed by 2026 and the legs to Manchester and Leeds finished in 2032-2033.



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