The Great Exhibition of 1851; it was an event that created a legacy and an image of industrial grandeur which has outlasted its physical relics. Now the Government is trying to recreate the ambitious feat. Jane Gray reports.
Our lead story in brief
● A new initiative called Made By Britain has been launched to show case British manufacturing excellence
● The unveiling of the complete catalogue of Made by Britain nominees will coincide with the Queen’s diamond Jubilee celebrations
● Although this initiative has been welcomed as a means for rehabilitating the image of manufacturing, many are unsure that it will live up to its ambitions to give greater power to the voice of manufacturing in government
● Nominees for Made By Britain are being picked by constituency. So far nominations are diverse, ranging from food and drink manufacturers through bespoke apparel to precision component engineering. Companies also vary in size including both big household names and untold success stories.
● The deadline for nominations is September 15
On July 6, an event took place in Westminster to launch a new initiative called ‘Made By Britain’. This scheme was conceived by the Associate Parliamentary Manufacturing Group and by the 1851 Royal Commission in order to revive the national significance of British industry, however, its structure may give an even greater opportunity to the manufacturing community.
The vision for Made By Britain, as Mr Vince Cable, Minister of State for Business, termed it at the launch event, is to create a “virtual Crystal Palace”, in tribute to the original Great Exhibition of 1851. The new website will display the best manufacturing outputs the country has to offer and will be promoted as part of the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations next year.
In order to compile this catalogue of industrial excellence, Policy Connect, the parliamentary group responsible for administering Made By Britain, have asked that every one of the UK’s 650 odd MPs select a manufacturing representative for their constituency.
The idea behind this system of nomination is to push MPs who may be more or less unaware of manufacturing strength within their areas of administration, to look again and realise the local influence of the manufacturing economy. The hope is that this increased knowledge, profile of manufacturing and engagement between industry and government, will facilitate the formation of better industrial and business policy on both a local and national level.
This is a fine ambition and all attendees at the launch event on July 6 supported it whole heartedly in principle. There were, however, many who were skeptical about the extent to which the admittedly gimmicky ‘virtual Crystal Palace’ concept would catch the lasting attention of politicians.
Tata Group, who were present for Cable’s unveiling of the scheme, spoke of its skepticism to TM and asked “what will the tangible outcomes be?” In addition Tata questioned “how government will prove that it is now listening harder in real policy steps?” Grounds for this skepticism are not hard to find.
The first round of nominations, while all exceedingly happy to be held up as industry exemplars, have said that their relationships with their local parliamentary representatives were already strong and meaningful.
Engaging those who have been less enthusiastic in the past will be harder and ensuring that their nominations will mean more than simply ticking an engagement box will be difficult. The nomination process is hardly taxing and asks little of MPs in terms of justifying their choice through specific criteria. It is not unreasonable to question therefore, how far this initiative is really pushing MPs to understand manufacturing better.
But of course, as Cable pointed out in his speech to a crowded room of manufacturers, bankers, politicians, academics and trade body representatives at Portcullis House, it is easy to miss positive steps by focusing instead on what has not been done. The Business Secretary said: “I recognise in my job that we’ve got to do what we can to support [manufacturing]. Quite a few of you have come up to me already and said ‘why aren’t you doing more?’ It’s a perfectly good question. But I can’t go round the country with a cheque book.
I would love to do so, I would love to be Father Christmas, but we can’t operate like that. But there are things we can do and are doing.” Alongside supporting apprenticeships, establishing Technology Innovation Centres and delivering what government funding it can through Regional Growth Funds, Mr Cable said that the key action to be taken was on changing the perception that the UK does not make things any more. This initiative, if properly communicated, should certainly do that.
The following statements from some of Made By Britain’s first nominees give more insight into the hopes and concerns of those at the centre of this new project as well as highlighting the diversity of selection already made to exhibit British manufacturing expertise.
SCA Hygiene Products
SCA have been nominated by Guy Opperman MP to represent the constituency of Hexham, Northumberland.
At the launch of Made By Britain, Mr Opperman explained that he had picked SCA because they stood out from the trend for focusing on high-tech manufacturing in terms of products. “The company is a fantastic example of modern manufacturing,” he said. SCA predominantly manufacture branded and own brand toilet rolls for the domestic market. One in five toilet rolls sold in the UK is manufactured by SCA.
Clive Bell is senior mill representative for SCA and he accompanied Mr Opperman to Portcullis House for the launch of Made By Britain. In response to SCAs nomination Mr Bell said that the company was thrilled but also indicated that the next steps and the direction of the initiative in terms of tangible outcomes were unclear. “We have been told that the organisers are planning to further develop the online resource and then look to have some kind of exhibition once every MP has nominated a company in their constituency,” he said.
On his hopes for influencing industrial policy through involvement in Made by Britain, Mr Bell commented: “At the launch I took the opportunity to mention to a couple of people, including our local MP, the concerns we have over government energy policy and the high production costs for energy-intensive business such as ours. This is an ongoing debate but we welcome any opportunity to make our views known to government.” Bell’s hope for the communication of SCAs own business concerns and the general amplification of the voice of manufacturing were further encouraged by press coverage of the event. He said: “This launch event has attracted huge media coverage from the likes of the FT through to the Hindustan Times and the News of the World.” Although the coverage of this last paper will likely be viewed as less significant in the light of recent events nevertheless Bell says: “I hope the organisers of the campaign use this momentum to generate further recognition for this country’s hard-pressed manufacturing sector and as a business we’ll do everything we can to support that.”
All just a little bit of
The fact this initiative was, in part, instigated by the 1851 Royal Commission is significant. This 1851 Royal Commission was established by Prince Albert in order to oversee the organisation of the, now legendary, Great Exhibition of the Victorian age.
This immense celebration of imperial might drew in more than 6 million attendees and show cased the latest advances in industrial technology and manufacturing specialism from all around the globe. It was designed to allow Britain to revel in its global industrial dominance, but Prince Albert perceived a problem; he saw that the finest exhibits were frequently not those from Britain, or its imperial acquisitions.
The Prince became concerned that the UK was falling behind in industrial innovation and application and he decided to extend the life of the Royal Commission, issuing it with the ongoing task of redistributing the significant profits made by the event, back into industry in order to support competitive development.
From 1851 to the present the Royal Commission has continued to invest in research and education projects in support of manufacturing. The parallels between the needs of British industry today and those perceived by Prince Albert 160 years ago have never been more distinct.
The Royal Commission is now chaired by Sir Alan Rudge who also chair of the ERA Foundation.
Tees Components have been nominated by Tom Blenkinsop MP to represent the constituency of Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. The specific products which inspired the nomination were the ship thrusters made by the Tees Gill Thrusters division. These advanced propulsion devices are used the world over. Tees Gill has a 50:50 ratio of exports to domestic sales and has a particularly strong market in the US.
Sharon Lane, general manager at Tees Gill Thrusters said of the nomination: “The whole initiative is certainly a welcome step and it is good news for our business.” On the need to motivate MPs to do more in acknowledging the importance of manufacturing businesses in their constituencies Ms Lane commented: “We have always had a lot of contact. I don’t see the local MPs as being an issue, but perhaps we have been luckier than others.” On the wider impact of the initiative Ms Lane was diffident. In terms of policies she hopes will be given attention she identified nuclear new build prospects as a subject her company are keen to have clarified and supported. Ms Lane also said that the actual objective of the project itself needed to be made clearer before those involved could form clear ideas of the benefits to be gained.
“You can build a website,” she said, “but who is it for and why is it there? Is the intention to attract young talent and excite them or is it to put forward the excellence of our product so that potential investors and customers from outside the UK think again about their perception of what is made here? Those two messages would require very different approaches.” Finishing on a positive note Lane added that it was “good that MPs have so far not just chosen household names. It has so far been small businesses who have really driven economic recovery and that is being recognised in a lot of the nominations.”
Of course, inevitably and correctly, the smaller companies have been joined by some big hitters.
Land Rover has made the product list in addition to custard creams from United Biscuits (under the McVities brand) and Young’s Fish Fingers. For these big organisations it might be supposed that recognition in a scheme of this kind would not be as highly valued as it is for less readily recognised companies and products. Not so say’s Leendert den Hollander, CEO of Young’s Seafood Limited.
“It’s great to see Austin Mitchell MP showing his support for Young’s Seafood fish fingers. Young’s has been based in the UK for over 200 years and has a proud history. I know this will mean a lot to the hardworking staff based in all 13 of our UK sites.” A good measure going forward for how important this initiative proves will be the extent to which companies not yet nominated display jealousy towards their peers. For Crowne Paints, based in Darwen, Lancashire, its nomination has become something of an ambition and it is working hard to influence local MP, Jake Berry, to pick Crowne as his constituency representative.
Commenting on this ambition and why he believes Crowne should be listed in the Made By Britain virtual Crystal Palace, Dave McCombe, head of manufacturing at Crowne, said: “Crown Paints has always been at the heart of the communities it serves and we have been at the forefront of manufacturing innovation for many years. We are passionate about manufacturing and keen to be involved in any initiatives to establish it once again as a key tenet of government policy.” Despite having a self proclaimed “good relationship” their local MP, a relationship which includes regular meetings for the communication of business concerns, McCombe feels it is important for manufacturers to seize this chance to put a magnifying glass over isolated instances of best practice like theirs, and prompt less engaged constituencies to remedy their failings. “So far, the Government’s rhetoric on manufacturing is to be welcomed, especially after the decline in some of the sector in the past decade. We are not the only ones who believe that many of the UK’s manufacturers remain world-class but we [collectively] need support from ministers to ensure the economy is ‘rebalanced’ in the way they say they want it to be,” says McCombe.
For those, like Crowne, who are keen to be listed as Made By Britain nominees the initiatives organisers are urging manufacturers to write to their MPs and spur them to action.
A template letter is available to download on the Made By Britain website (www.policyconnect.org.uk/apmg/made-by-britain). The deadline for nominations is September 15.