COMMENT: UK industry needs to sell itself better, starting with UK Gov

By Dave Leggett | 25 January 2011

I found myself at 'Mercedes-Benz World' in Surrey for a meeting last week. It's quite a place. Think mega-dealer, museum, theme park crossover. It reflects how important the UK market is to Mercedes. Nick Fry, the motorsports man and CEO of Mercedes Grand Prix, hosted a dinner at the Gullwing restaurant.

He gave a short address to the long and attentive table (mainly motoring journalists from national newspapers, car magazines, with a few trade press reps such as myself) about the advanced level of engineering/technical expertise in this country – as exemplified by the role played by UK-based firms in the auto industry and especially in motorsport activities (most notably in Formula One).

“The whole world seems to hold the UK in very high regard, except ourselves,” he lamented.

Fry comes to this subject from a pretty good vantage point. He was one of the business ambassadors that accompanied prime minister David Cameron to China on a trade mission late last year. He also revealed that he and industrialist Digby Jones had pointed out to an amazed Cameron that Michael Schumacher's F1 Mercedes is developed and built in Northamptonshire.

“We need to start talking ourselves up,” Fry observed.

I'm sure we do, starting with a deeper understanding of what this country is actually good at in Whitehall and Westminster. For too long perhaps the focus in government was on looking after the City of London – though only a fool would underplay the importance of financial services to the British economy.

But the advanced engineering capability that exists here is also something that needs to be nurtured and invested in. Rising talent has to view it and manufacturing more generally as an exciting and rewarding place in which to have a career. The hugely respected motorsports industry in Britain is a good example of a very well developed engineering niche. Electric cars may well be another one for the future; some good work has already gone on. But maintaining momentum and a perception in a global industry that you are at the heart of things, posses the core skills, infrastructure and business environment to attract and enhance new investment, isn't something to be complacent about.

There have already been warnings sounded about the dire state of the UK automotive supplier industry. Its steady decline over the decades carries lessons; a globally uncompetitive manufacturing sector will eventually disappear, especially if its locally established customers are in decline too. And the mere perception that it is in decline, that it is not exactly a thriving place to work, will hasten its demise - the best talent going elsewhere.

What would be good would be to know more clearly what is needed to help the manufacturing sector in Britain. What can we learn from the successes (eg Ford's extensive engine manufacturing; car making operations from the likes of Nissan, Toyota, JLR; and Midlands-based global supplier GKN all spring to mind as well as world beating engineering companies like Lotus and Ricardo) and what do we think is needed to build a platform for higher growth in manufacturing in Britain in the future?

For the CBI to have so strongly criticised the government's economic policies yesterday is a sign that alarm bells are ringing in industry, but it would be helpful to know specifically what the CBI would like the Government to do to stimulate the private sector and manufacturing in particular.

One assumes that it would not advocate joining the euro, but it would be interesting to hear thoughts on the exchange rate. And interest rates are surely as low as they can go, yes? Cut corporation tax, NICs? Tough to do that when there's a big fiscal deficit to grapple with. Are there things that can be done to better help exporters? What about the education sector and how that could better help industry? The state of the banks and loans to industry? Initiatives that work well in other countries? Let's hear it.

At least the Government will be listening to what industry has to say. The UK manufacturing sector therefore needs to seize the opportunity to communicate as clearly as possible how significant it is to the broader economy and what is needed to create the conditions to maximise future growth. With as many as half a million jobs forecast to be lost in the public sector by the middle of this decade, Whitehall and Westminster should be all ears. It's time for some clarity.

See also: UK: Manufacturing summit held to grow UK industry