November 2017 saw government unveil a long-term strategy for how Britain can build on its economic strengths, but it could take a while to win over sceptical manufacturers following years of industrial neglect.
Speaking to many business owners over the years, it’s clear that Vince Cable represented a ‘stable force for good’, holding the post of Business Secretary long enough to gain a deep understanding of UK manufacturing, particularly the automotive sector.
In comparison, Sajid Javid is often described as ‘ineffective’ and too ‘hands-off’. His sluggish reaction and eventual handling of the UK steel crisis won him little respect – particularly from those left out of work as a result.
The current Business Secretary, Greg Clarke, was mooted as a potential casualty of the Prime Minister’s recent cabinet reshuffle. He may have avoided the chop on that occasion, but it doesn’t fill you with confidence that he’ll be around for years to come.
The Manufacturer recently sat down with members of the Manufacturing Assembly Network (MAN), most of which – ironically – championed the need for a ‘strong and stable’ Business Secretary.
MAN is one of the UK’s leading manufacturing collectives, comprised of eight sub-contract specialists and an engineering design agency. All are small or medium-sized companies and, for the most part, all are based in and around the Midlands.
Tony Sartorius, chairman and owner of Wednesbury-based aluminium casting producer Alucast, summed up many people’s feelings: “We need someone in place for years, not months. As business owners, we don’t know who these people are and by the time we do, they’ve been replaced.
“The Business Secretary has to be hands-on and get to know all of UK manufacturing, not just focus on automotive or aerospace. They have to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each sector, and promote or support them accordingly.”
Investment in large infrastructure projects was one area where Adam Cunningham, managing director of subcontract machine group Muller Holdings, considered the government to be performing strongly.
“SMEs may have had difficulties in getting into HS2, Crossrail or Hinkley Point supply chains, but the projects are still positive. Take HS2, for example. That is being supported by a lot of manufacturing businesses, a project which is probably dominating their capacity.
“Their other customers are going to be forced to look elsewhere, and that’s where businesses like mine have an opportunity.”
The rise of major UK infrastructure projects has led to construction becoming an increasingly important sector for Muller Holdings, Cunningham continued.
“These projects include foundations, buildings, bridges, tunnels, landscaping, slip-roads, sidings, and numerous construction vehicles; the scope of each one is huge. As soon as ground is broken, the amount of assemblies, parts, spares and forgings is massive, and our business witnesses a significant uplift as soon as each new one begins.”
With HS3, Crossrail 2, a pressing need for more housing developments and a long-awaited new airport runway, the UK would appear to be living in a golden age of infrastructure investment.
The scale and length of several of these projects mean that it could fundamentally reshape the next 10 or 20 years for some businesses, should they get the opportunity right.
Manufacturing represents 68% of the UK’s total business research and development (R&D) investment – much of which is conducted by small enterprises.
Austin Owens, managing director of Grove Design, noted: “I see a lot of innovators, people with ideas, who come to me for advice and support. It can be quite difficult to filter out the good ideas from the bad, but nevertheless, they are people who generally should be encouraged.
“These people represent one of the UK’s greatest strengths and they need greater support. The better ideas need commercialising and these people need to be transformed into business owners who make a profit, create jobs and generate taxes.”
What could government do better?
Barkley Plastics has recently benefitted from the introduction of the government’s Tooling Loan Fund, which helps toolmakers and component manufacturers fund the design, development and production of tooling.
It has helped the Birmingham-based business secure several new projects to date, according to business development manager Matt Harwood, and he would like to see the introduction of similar grants or initiatives.
However, the amount of red tape associated with securing government funding is a source of widespread frustration, particularly as each new scheme or initiative has its own unique objectives and ‘language’, irrespective of how similar it may be to previous incarnations.
Precision stamper and toolmaker, Brandauer, has been a beneficiary of the Green Bridge Supply Chain Programme, part of the £33m Business Growth Programme which helps SMEs expand into the ‘green’ economy.
Brandauer CEO, Rowan Crozier explained: “The paperwork and pain, the deliverables, associated with securing that type of money was a real headache. We were in the best postcode, we were an SME, we ticked every box and even so, it was like getting blood from a stone.
“I would like to see more, but make them accessible – that’s the most important thing. I know there has to be a balance between box ticking and justifying receiving the funding, but currently, it’s too far weighted on one side.”
Getting that balance right is crucial, especially for UK’s SMEs. As Crozier noted:“There is no doubt in my mind that post-Brexit, SMEs will form the backbone of the UK economy.”
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