When it was announced last July that UK firm, Bombardier had missed out on the £1.4 billion Thameslink contract, the company immediately responded with plans to cut 1,400 jobs. The decision to award such a lucrative and prestigious contract to a German company is another major blow to British manufacturing and indicates the lack of support for the sector, despite its continuing importance for the UK economy and the track record of innovation and quality it continues to deliver.
While our economy has shifted significantly towards a service sector model over the past 30 years, manufacturing still accounts for 12% of GDP in the UK, more than the 9% contributed by the financial services sector. And yet when there is talk of simulating growth, investing in the economy and creating jobs, little of that talk is centred around the manufacturing sector. Indeed, there seems to be a nihilistic acceptance that manufacturing in the UK is dead, while we rely instead on cheap imports and envy Germany for its manufacturing prowess.
And so begins the chicken and egg merry-go-round. Without investment, British manufacturing will stagnate, talent will be lost and innovation will disappear from our shores for good. However, to generate the investment needed to create jobs and nurture innovation, there must be a viable and sustainable market for the sector’s products which can only happen if there is a widespread understanding of the benefits of buying British to the whole economy.
That’s where GB Plc comes in. Instead of sticking rigidly to a price-based strategy, UK companies need to support other UK companies by buying British. It may sound old fashioned and protectionist but in addition to ensuring that they’re buying value for money products rather than simply cheap ones, it means that UK companies will actually be keeping their money in the UK. Just as the ‘shop local’ concept has taken off to help protect many of the country’s local high streets, the ‘Buy British’ mantra needs to return to help protect the UK economy because if nobody buys products manufactured in the UK in the short term, there will be none to buy in the long term. We would continue to rely on imported goods, even if the price went up and the quality continued to nose dive.
Much of the complacency about buying cheap imported products stems from the fact that there is often no incentive for contractors to choose quality products. Often they are under price pressure and, as long as the product they choose will last long enough to get them through the defects period, then it ticks the box – at which point any failure is no longer their problem. If instead there was an insistence on quality across the delivery chain and a best value whole life costs approach to specification, the business case for buying British would be obvious.
That tide is now starting to turn. At Wandsworth we’re already seeing some of our OEM customers returning to our products after experiencing poor quality standards from imported components not to mention extended lead times. However, UK companies are still not doing enough to support each other and it is time that all companies across the delivery chain in every sector realised that buying products manufactured in the UK sustains other commercial activities across both the manufacturing and service sectors.
Support the sector
The Government also has a key role to play in supporting the sector. Episodes like the failure of Bombardier to win the Thameslink contract have a knock-on effect on the whole economy and, while it may not be feasible for the Government to invest directly in manufacturing, helping to create a healthy commercial environment for the sector should certainly be on the agenda.
This should include a buy British procurement policy for the public sector and a drive to promote exports as well as moves like the £40 billion credit easing programme announced in the Autumn Statement to help SMEs stay afloat.
As a British manufacturer I am proud to say that our expertise in developing and manufacturing products is still alive and well and we can still lead the world for both quality and innovation. What we need to do now, as a nation, is demonstrate our pride in that continuing tradition by buying British and flying the flag at every opportunity.