It’s him again – Vince Cable at yet another manufacturing-related event, this time the launch of the Make it in Great Britain showcase that took place at the Science Museum in London at the end of last month. Cable’s appearance followed hot on the heels of his tour around the Wakefield factory of engineering firm Rhodes; his visit to the Mach machine-tool exhibition in Birmingham; and a trip to the former Corus steelworks in Redcar, now owned by SSI. You can’t keep Vince away from industrial settings.
Of course, the cynics among us would suggest that it’s politically expedient for Cable and his peers to be displaying a new-found love and respect for companies that make things. Not too long ago such admiration was reserved for the financial services sector, in particular the Square Mile. Now bankers are personae non gratae – it’s manufacturers who are flavour of the month.
But that’s OK, any attention will do. And in fairness the business secretary has exhibited a more rigorous knowledge of manufacturing and engineering than many of his predecessors. His support for the Made in Britain exhibition, launched to change outdated perceptions of manufacturing, was a case in point: Cable rattled off figures about the worth of manufacturing to the economy, and spoke promisingly about the role that government has to play in working with industry to ensure the long-term health of the sector. Impressive stuff.
But now is no time for complacency, especially in the wake of a report that found that the UK’s manufacturing output has slipped from sixth to ninth place in the global rankings. The report suggested that the UK has been overtaken by the likes of Brazil, South Korea and France, and now ranks just above India. The figures showed that over the past 30 years the world’s output of manufactured goods has trebled to $8.2 trillion worth. Between 1984 and 2009 the UK output rose 13% – the lowest growth out of the top 25 global manufacturing nations. Over the same period a disproportionate share of manufacturing growth has occurred in developing countries.
So Cable has his work cut out putting his goodwill and fine words into action. The first step to achieving this would be the development of a national industrial strategy. It’s hard to see how manufacturers can make long-term investment decisions when they don’t know the long-term plans of those in power.
There are other quick wins that come to mind. The government and the financial sector must work closer together to deliver greater capital investment in production plants and machinery, along with training. An industrial bank could assist companies with access to funds, providing options such as asset management loans.
There also needs to be greater support for the work of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills to increase the number of trained people to meet the future requirements of industry. Only then can we develop programmes to deliver an expanded manufacturing sector.
And the High-Value Manufacturing Catapult Centre, which was launched last year, should expand its role across all sectors of industry.
These are all relatively straightforward initiatives that could be implemented sooner rather than later. Goodwill towards manufacturing is all well and good – but it needs to be backed by urgent action if we are to prevent the UK falling further behind its rival nations.
- Interested in visiting Make it in Great Britain exhibition? Visit makeitingreatbritain.bis.gov.uk