Can Britain still make it?

Posted: January 30th, 2012

How thrilled was I to hear that Vince Cable, Business Secretary of the government’s Department of Business Innovation and Skills, has launched a campaign entitled “Make it in Great Britain” with the aim to “transform the image of modern UK manufacturing and to raise awareness of its importance for the economy”. Sounds good doesn’t it, except that this happened last November and I don’t recall seeing it promoted, or commented on in any of the national newspapers at that time. Did you? And yet the campaign promises “a national competition to find the most promising and cutting-edge pre-market products or processes.” And all this glorious innovation is to culminate in an exhibition at The Science Museum during the Olympics! It’s to be a show that will “highlight the successes of the manufacturing sector, show the true face of British manufacturing and encourage young people to consider a career in the industry.” It’s going to be “exciting” and “positive”, a veritable shop window of “class-leading processes and products from a wide range of manufacturing industries.”

On the official “Make it in Great Britain” website, replete with whizzy graphics in red, white and blue, there are some pictures of racing cars and petri dishes alongside some impressive numbers: “In 2009, manufacturing was the third largest sector in the UK economy after business services and the wholesale/retail sector, generating around £140bn in gross value added.” It continues, breathlessly, “In 2010 the UK manufacturing sector employed 2.5 million people: 8% of total UK employment”. And lest we persist in underplaying its importance, “UK exports of manufactured goods totalled £235bn, accounting for over 55% of all UK exports.” Ahh, you can see why government wants to get involved, it seems there’s money being made here! However, they failed to mention that today manufacturing makes up little more than 11% of GDP, a sorry figure compared to highs of 22% in 1990.

And I have some other figures to quote too, courtesy of a very illuminating meeting with Dids MacDonald, Chief Executive of ACID, the anti copying in design organisation. Apparently 2.4% of the UK’s GDP (that’s approximately £33bn!) is said to emanate from the design sector. So on the “Make it in Great Britain” website, which suggests the potential of mobile communications, space stations and new generations of cars, where are the references to the contributory potential of design? But then strictly speaking “design” comes under the remit of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, so I suppose they’re a bit stretched, what with the Olympics coming up.

Nevertheless, quoting again from research compiled by ACID: The creative industries as a whole, which include the design sector, generate around 8% of the UK’s annual GDP (£112bn) and support nearly 2 million jobs, thus design clearly plays a significant role in the creative economy. And yet the government persists in separating “design” from “business”. Why?

I fear there seems to be a long held perception in this country, certainly since the 1980s, that design is just esoteric surface fiddling with no intrinsic value of its own. I’ve always thought the back history of our tube map, revered around the world for its simplicity and clarity, exemplifies this attitude. It was “designed” by Henry Charles Beck in 1931 in his spare time because the Underground Authorities were skeptical of its usefulness, perceiving it as unduly radical, so they never officially commissioned it. Of course it became immediately popular when eventually released in pamphlet form in 1933. Kind of says it all, doesn’t it.

And today, what about companies like Original BTC, manufacturer of contemporary aluminium, chrome and bone-china lighting? With assembly based in Oxford but the bone china shades still hand-cast in Stoke-on-Trent, today over 70% of Original BTCs lights are exported worldwide. Don’t they count?

Or how about one of my latest discoveries, H&E Smith? Also based in Stoke-on-Trent, they’ve been making ceramic wall tiles since 1948 and were the company called upon by English Heritage to refurbish the London Underground, developing colour glazes and tiles to match existing designs of 100 years ago. More recently they’ve expanded trade to Russia.

Then there’s Thomas Crapper & Co, yes can you believe it, the original loo maker with Royal Approval is still going strong, now based in Stratford-on-Avon and with WCs sent as far afield as New Zealand! I entreat you to visit their website; it makes absolutely fascinating reading. Not least of which it’s good to know that the company will still supply spares for your antique Crapper ware, should it be so required.

If it’s a more traditional kind of seat you’re after then consider Ercol. In 1944, the now Buckinghamshire-based furniture manufacturer was contracted by the government’s then Board of Trade to produce 100,000 low cost Windsor chairs. Such an investment enabled the perfecting of the steam-bending process, and Ercol went on to exhibit their innovative bentwood chairs at the original “Britain can make it” exhibition held at the V&A in 1946. In 2010 its revenue was estimated at £12 million.

Last but definitely not least in my speedy round-up of a few long-standing yet not-sung-enough heroes of British design manufacturing, Bristan, the Warwickshire-based tap maker, whose wares I ultimately chose for my own home after a long and painful search for something I liked, at a price I could afford. They have a turnover approaching £100million.

So we are still manufacturing in Britain, as this short list makes plain. And I’ve not even touched on some of our super success stories like the Wiltshire-based Dyson, with a turnover estimated at £1bn last year; or mentioned the craft sector, which has always been phenomenally strong in the UK and reputedly contributes around £3 billion to our economy as well as providing 260,000 jobs.

In short, everything that is made, and works well, is “designed” in some way or other. So why is it taking government so long to catch on when the UK’s design sector could be such a spur to economic growth. After all, is it really such a surprise that Apple have risen to such prominence… it’s due not just to the superior functionality of its products, but also to their seductive design, “products so good you’ll want to lick them”, enthused Steve Jobs, who certainly understood the power of design. He was unstinting in his thanks to his Senior Vice President of Industrial Design, British designer Jonathan Ive. Apple: revenue approximately £69bn per annum, and rising.


Help design get its due by signing our petition for it to achieve parity of copyright protection with other disciplines such as art, music and literature, which means that what we make is protected by law from copyists.  As ACID succinctly puts it, “Tradable IP, in whatever form, should benefit from a system which provides easy access to effective enforcement so that the UK’s significant design sector can be the successful engine that provides growth, jobs and economic strength.

Hear more about the future of British Manufacturing on this Guardian Business podcast from February 2011.

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