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2012 REVIEW: BUSINESS

WITH a crisis raging in our main European export markets, and with new fires breaking out in the Scottish banks while others smoulder on, many in business will be content to have staggered to the end of another 12 months.

Scotland's renewable energy sector continued to attract investment in 2012
Scotland's renewable energy sector continued to attract investment in 2012

The theme of the year-end? It could have been worse.

Despite Scotland's 8.2% unemployment rate, slightly above the UK's 7.9%, the relief of the business survivors and the quiet smugness of the many thrivers is buoyed by strong expectation that 2013 will be marginally better – perhaps seeing GDP growth go from below zero to about 1.5%. But there is of course still a nagging fear that things could go horribly wrong.

Any seasonal cheer has been achieved despite the actions of the Scottish banks, rather than because of them. Five years on from the collapse, with the shape of banking reform still a subject of fierce debate, few believe all the chickens of the boom years have come home to roost.

RBS, whose former presiding spirit Fred Goodwin was stripped of his knighthood in January, has made positive forward steps in 2012, as the bank's dramatically improved share price suggests. These include the selling of 30% of its Direct Line insurance subsidiary and emergence from the "comfort blanket" of the Government Asset Protection Scheme, which insured against the default of £282 billion of the bank's most toxic loans.

But the backward steps were bigger: an IT meltdown, the withdrawal of Santander's £1.65bn offer to buy 300 RBS branches and the mustering of a legal challenge by disgruntled shareholders.

After the Libor fixing scandal exploded in June, Scotland's battered flagship enters 2013 facing the consequences of its admitted collusion in rigging the benchmark borrowing rate. The fine, which taxpayers will fork out for, is expected to outstrip the £300 million penalty on Barclays in June, although not perhaps the £900m imposed on UBS this month.

Lloyds Banking Group continued to make positive progress despite the added burden of its PPI mis-selling liabilities, while the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards' grilling of former HBoS chiefs, and various below-the-radar probes, suggested the disgrace of Scotland's oldest-surviving financial institution (subject of last year's book Hubris, by Ray Perman) has not yet been consigned to history.

Meanwhile, Clydesdale Bank, another former symbol of Scottish steadiness, continued to struggle as the extent of weak controls, expansionism and reckless commercial property lending at the height of the boom became clear. The bank reported a £183m loss, the first in its history but, having passed through the pain barrier, can look forward to better times ahead.

Over the decades, Scotland has had more than its fair share of resonant industrial closures. This year saw a steady stream of bad news stories, with a record 385 Scottish firms becoming insolvent or entering receivership in the first three months of 2012. The higher-profile casualties included mining company ATH Resources, which employs more than 300 people at five Scottish open-cast mines, and the Freshlink sausage factory in Shettleston in Glasgow, whose demise caused 145 job losses.

But the year's biggest blow was the UK closure of Livingston-headquartered Dutch food producer Vion, which employs 13,000 people across Britain. It announced plans to sell its UK food businesses, including 12 premises in Scotland, to focus on "core markets in the Netherlands and Germany". This meant the closure of Hall's of Broxburn, a victim of rising costs imposed on pig farmers and others.

Further bad news came as BAE Systems raised questions about the future of its Govan and Scotstoun operations when it launched a review of its maritime operations.

This has been a big year for north-south connectivity, which is vital for the Scots economy, not least because the high-speed rail debate hit the mainstream news agenda.

First, BMI Regional was sold by International Airlines Group to a consortium of Aberdeenshire businessmen for £8m, then the UK Government's disastrous mishandling of the West Coast franchise saw Aberdeen's FirstGroup humiliated by the Government's snatching back of the proffered franchise, while Virgin secured its hold over the route for a further two years.

UK oil and gas production has fallen substantially over the last few years, but 2012 saw the first production increases in a long time. It was also a busy year for new projects in the North Sea. Premier Oil was given approval for its £550m Solan field development, west of Shetland, with platforms to be built by Burntisland Fabrications (BiFab), creating 200 jobs in Methil. Talisman Energy sanctioned the £1.6bn Montrose area redevelopment after gaining final regulatory approval for the UK North Sea project. Shell got final approval for a £500m development of the Fram field 136 miles east of Aberdeen, which is believed to hold up to 300m barrels of oil and gas.

A year during which foreign cash poured into Scotland's oil fields culminated earlier this month with the announcement of Statoil's £4.3bn investment in the Mariner field, promising 700 jobs.

Renewable energy continued to attract international attention, bolstered by Scottish Government initiatives such as the £103m Renewable Energy Infrastructure Fund, and the launch of the UK Government Green Investment Bank in Edinburgh. Investors included Samsung Heavy Industries of South Korea, which announced £100m of investment in an offshore wind turbine development on the Fife Energy Park, while SSE and Scottish Enterprise (SE) pledged £20m to create an offshore wind turbine test centre at Hunterston

In the legal world Burness, which along with Brodies has seen a Scotland-only strategy pay off, consolidated its rising position with a strategic tie-up with leading Aberdeen firm Paull & Williamsons, while McGrigors's merger with London-based Pinsent Masons seemed defensive.

A double-dip recessionary climate appears not to have distracted some of Scotland's biggest and most successful companies from significant deals and mergers. The £1.4bn marriage of Irn-Bru maker AG Barr with Britvic presaged a gravitational shift south for the iconic company, with Scottish job cuts an inevitable part of the package. Diageo, meanwhile, invested £1bn in new whisky production facilities.

Bus and coach manufacturer Alexander Dennis spent £25m acquiring a bus builder in Australia, while Stagecoach continued its steady US expansion, and Glasgow engineering group Weir acquired Novatech, the US firm whose pumps are used in fracking (shale gas extraction) – a term that became mainstream in 2012.

ANOTHER reason not to over-stress gloom in 2012 is visible progress on a raft of important projects to improve Scotland's attractiveness and infrastructure in ways that will benefit the country and its cultural life for years to come. This should speed up in 2013. The Chancellor's autumn statement contained provision for £300m of extra spending for the Scottish Government, which has a list of "shovel-ready" projects, many of them for roads.

Donald Trump's golf course at Menie was completed (despite controversy, it is key to Aberdeen's tourism strategy), with plans for another. Also in Aberdeen, the peripheral road got the go-ahead, consolation for backers of the £140m City Garden project, blocked by what some saw as local political imperatives.

Dundee projects that made big progress in 2012 and will have long-term benefits include the £1bn transformation of the waterfront and the green light for Kengo Kuma's V&A.

In the east end of Glasgow, the year also saw the opening of the £113m Emirates Arena, which will play host to the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. The city centre got the go-ahead for its £80m Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) scheme for the Buchanan Quarter project, which will revamp George Square and the Buchanan Galleries shopping centre and should be completed in time for the Games.

So despite continuing high-profile high-street carnage (with Comet, JJB Sports and other retail giants going down last), there is a reasonable chance that 2012 will come to be seen as a pivotal year for the economy, not least because of the one-off national celebrations which lifted the gloom. Given that recoveries demand confidence and confidence is a state of mind, such changes in the national mood do matter.

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