RAGS-to-riches van hire specialist Stuart Lever reckons the success of his U-Drive business is the perfect barometer to measure the health of the Bolton economy.

The 45-year-old boss of the firm in Blackburn Road, Astley Bridge, said there was no greater indication of the impending recession than when the banks crashed in 2008, sparking one of the worst downturns in living memory.

“It was amazing,” said the former Bolton Conservative councillor. “Overnight van hire bookings fell off the cliff. Suddenly there was nothing.

“It was like getting an instant message that the economy was in trouble. The recession was very hard. People just stopped moving house — and if you’re not moving house, you don’t need a van.

“But I think what saved us was that local businesses couldn’t get finance to buy their own vans, so they would hire them from us.”

Mr Lever says the current upturn in his bookings is showing the economy is on the mend.

“I have increased my fleet of vans to 25,” he said. “Bookings are booming and things are moving again.”

U-Drive’s turnover has soared, and Mr Lever said he and his wife Melanie are delighted to be running a viable business.

But he puts his success down to the help he received as a teenager from the Prince’s Trust after he was out of work for eight months.

“I was advised to apply for the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, but I was told I had to contribute £1,000, which I didn’t have,“ he said.

“The Prince’s Trust gave me some money and I bought a van for £575 and started doing removals and removing people’s rubbish, and advertising in the then Bolton Evening News as a ‘man-and-van’.

“I worked myself so hard I made myself physically and mentally sick. I was running myself ragged at the age of 30.”

Former Sharples High School pupil Mr Lever also acquired the Sandwich Shop in Derby Street for £29,000, a business he later sold for £187,000.

But despite his success in business, Mr Lever says he has always believed in giving something back to the community.

“I served 12 years on Bolton Council and have served as a mentor at Bolton Lads and Girls Club,” he said. “That was something I was delighted and proud to do.”

Mr Lever has recently become a member of the Business Network Bolton and Bury.