‘Workshop of the world’ … Is British manufacturing a thing of the past?

Image of old industrial plant.

Image: Till Krech via Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence.

By Steven McGinty

In the 19th century, Britain was heralded as the ‘workshop of the world’, producing everything from locomotives to extraordinary handicrafts. By the 20th century, the United States was the predominant manufacturing power, but Britain had become a specialist in manufacturing.  In recent history, economic growth has been led by the service sector, particularly from financial services in the City of London.

This change in the economy has led to a lot of debate. In fact, this was cited as one of the main drivers of inequality by the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) at a recent seminar I attended. However, does this mean Britain should return to its industrial roots, or should it focus on the provision of services, which has been seen as key to recent economic successes?

The Chancellor, George Osborne, certainly thinks there’s a place for manufacturing. In March 2014, he emphasised that his Budget was focused on boosting UK manufacturing and rebalancing the economy across the regions. The Budget included some high profiles measures, including the introduction of £7 billion of funding to cut energy bills for manufacturers, as well as compensation of £1 billion for energy intensive manufacturers.

A recent House of Commons Library statistical release provides some interesting insights into the UK manufacturing sector. It reports that economic output has decreased from 30% in the 1970s to 10% in 2012 and that manufacturing was badly affected during the recession, falling 14.5% between the first quarter of 2008 and the third quarter of 2009. The manufacturing workforce has also reduced from 5.6 million in 1982 to 2.6 million in 2014.

However, an Office for National Statistics (ONS) report provides some signs of optimism. It found that, since 1948, productivity in the manufacturing sector has increased gradually by 2.8% each year, compared to 1.4% in the service sector. The report suggests that the UK manufacturing sector has benefited more from information and communications technology (ICT) than the services sector and the more integrated global economy.

These factors have contributed to a shift from low-value manufacturing, where the focus was on low costs and low skilled workers, to high-value manufacturing, where workers provide value to the production process with their knowledge and expertise.

Interesting trends have also started to develop. For instance, Civitas has produced a report into ‘onshoring’ or ‘reshoring’, a practice that involves firms bringing back production that they had previously sent overseas. Firms are taking this approach for a number of reasons, some of which are related to the difficulties of offshoring such as language barriers, whereas others are looking more at the positives of domestic production, such as improved quality control, as well as an increase in a brand’s appeal by its connection to having products manufactured in countries such as the UK. Examples of onshoring including General Motors, who are currently investing £125 million in a domestic supply chain in the UK.

The report also highlighted that there are still barriers to onshoring. For example, less flexible workforces, although this is deemed to be changing in the United States as trade unions are becoming more flexible.

We have also seen the rise of ‘phoenix industries’. These are groups of firms that use similar technologies and have emerged in traditional industrial areas, typically developing sophisticated components for use in a range of industries. This idea was discussed in a recent article in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society. It focused on a case study of the West Midlands, an area which has been seen as the ‘heartland’ of the automotive industry.  The article emphasised the importance of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), the niche/luxury car manufacturer, for providing opportunities for smaller more innovative companies in their supply chain. Yet, the article also highlights that getting access to funding is key for these companies to develop their prototypes. This lack of funding for small firms was identified as a weakness of the UK sector.

So, is British manufacturing a thing of the past? The answer is most likely no. However, the shape of the manufacturing industry and the role it has to play as part of the overall economy has still to be determined. This will depend on a number of factors including future government policy, particularly addressing issues such as access to capital and shortages of skills, as well as the overall global economy, most notably the ability of the Eurozone to recover from its current economic downturn.


 

 Further reading:

N.B. Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service. Find more information on the service here.

2 thoughts on “‘Workshop of the world’ … Is British manufacturing a thing of the past?

  1. Pingback: Science, technology and innovation: the impact of Brexit | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

  2. Pingback: Scotland’s space sector: a launchpad for economic growth | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s