Utility services provider Homeserve is this year's winner of The Birmingham Post Shareleague competition.

It topped the Superleague section after posting a share price rise of 40 per cent since April 1, 2004.

This substantial re-rating followed the group's de-merger of its water supply operation, South Staffordshire Water, on April 6 last year. The changes have been well received and interim results for the six months ended September 30 showed earnings per share growth (excluding goodwill and exceptional items) from continuing operations of 19 per cent to 12.7p.

Second place is taken by the insurer Britannic Group, which closed the Shareleague year - April 1, 2004, to March 31,2005 - with a final share price of 474p.

Last month the company announced its acquisition of Century Group and its subsidiaries for £43.7 million in cash - it has 21 closed life funds with an embedded value of approximately £63.5 million.

Britannic is focussed on becoming a major owner and administrator of closed UK life funds and is also developing its asset management products and pension plans.

Birmingham-based pubs group Mitchells & Butlers leaped up two places in this month's Superleague table to finish in third position.

The company's recent annual general meeting reported a strong start to the year, with like for like sales ahead by 5.2 per cent in the first 16 weeks to January 15. Despite uncertainty over the outlook for consumer spending, a combination of good sales growth and selective site disposals continues to deliver strong cash flows for the company.

In the medium-sized table, the mail collection and delivery service provider Business Post moves up one place this month to take poll position.

During the period the group announced that its business unit UK Mail had won a contract to provide upstream mail services to the Royal Bank of Scotland Group, one of the UK's largest mailers.

Hereford-based Wyevale Garden Centres also moves up one place this month to finish in second place.

Following an 8.8 per cent sales increase over Christmas, the company reported like for like sales in the nine weeks to March 6 up 9.5 per cent. Wyevale, which operates 115 centres nationwide, has been redeveloping its larger sites, introducing restaurants, pet shops and an extended gift area.

Third position went to commercial property developer A&J Mucklow, which closed the Shareleague year at 474p. The company's first half results for the period to the end of December showed good progress despite a challenging property market. Their outlook remains positive for the second half.

In the smaller shareleague category, first and second position remains unchanged from last month, with Widney taking first place, followed by Loades.

Widney, the designer and manufacturer of telescopic slides and windows for specialist vehicles, has seen a 191 per cent increase in share price in the twelve-month period, well ahead of second placed engineering company Loades which recorded a 146 per cent change.

Finally, Wolverhamptonbased steel fabricator Hill & Smith climbed up one place to achieve third position, after putting in a strong month on month performance. The group is continuing to invest in its key businesses, where markets remain strong, generating further improvements in profitability.

Turning to wider economic developments, the Chancellor's Budget last month presented a confident outlook for the UK economy, predicting continued strong growth of 3-3.5 per cent in 2005. However, the consensus view, which PricewaterhouseCoopers broadly shares, is that UK GDP growth will be somewhat slower at approximately 2.5 per cent in 2005, with similar growth in 2006.

This forecast reflects a more cautious view of global economic prospects, while also taking into account domestic risks associated with the housing market and the impact these may have on consumer spending.

UK manufacturers continue to face underlying risks.

The pressure of rising energy costs, the exchange rate and strong global competition remain key areas of concern.

Official data shows that in February manufacturers had to pay 10.7 per cent more for raw materials than a year ago, representing the fastest annual increase in ten years. This was largely due to surging crude oil prices over the last year, although the figures show that output prices actually rose faster than input prices during February, suggesting manufacturers were able to protect margins to some extent by raising prices.

This improvement in the sector's performance is further supported by findings that manufacturing output increased by 0.7 per cent in the three months to January, compared with the three months to October. The service economy lost some impetus recently, as overall activity slowed, influenced by weaker growth in new business.

According to a report by the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply and NTC Research, service sector activity fell to 55.1 in February from

55.9 in January, on a scale where anything above 50 indicates growth. Yet, in terms of business expectations the index remained optimistic at 73.6, with more than half the companies surveyed anticipating an improvement over the next 12 months.

Shareleague monitors the performance of West Midlands plcs...SUPL: