Some say that manufacturing in the UK has become unfashionable. The most recent figures show that the UK continues to operate a substantial trade deficit, standing at £400m in May this year. This was caused by our goods sector, where we operated a startling £8bn deficit.
These numbers can be hard to contextualise. What they perhaps mask, however, is a general shift in the nature of British manufacturing – from a labour-intensive model to a high-tech, less dexterous approach.
Indeed, my company has chosen to retain the overwhelming majority of its manufacturing in Britain. This is not blind patriotism. The UK has a number of exceptional advantages which are compelling manufacturers to stay put.
Most practically, we have a highly stable government which enforces copyright laws. This is essential for any manufacturer creating unique products. A fraud, or a cheap and inadequate copy, is incredibly damaging. It is hard to estimate the value of having protection from these threats.
What’s more, the UK has a brilliantly skilled and diverse workforce, world-leading in its calibre. This means that, while not the cheapest, British staff perform to a high level and can make the decisions needed to keep business fresh and challenging.
People also tend to forget our geographic advantages. Yes, we are bound to trade as an island nation. But the location of our island benefits us massively. We are excellently positioned to export to Europe, a large, wealthy and reliable market for any business. What’s more, few developed countries are in as good a location to trade with the US, something enhanced by our shared language and history.
Meanwhile, British suppliers tend to be highly reliable and of high quality. Our supplier relationships work nearly solely on the basis of trust and we can keep supplier chains short.
Without these advantages, I very much doubt that it would be as easy for us to market in over 45 countries, let alone export 60 per cent of our stairlifts.
Like many of Britain’s biggest engineering manufacturers, we have benefited from the nature of our product. Easily produced, homogenous products are vulnerable. Since they can be made by any factory, anywhere, market fluctuations can be highly damaging. For them, a shift in currencies can lead to thousands of redundancies as manufacturing is moved to somewhere with a more export-friendly exchange rate. Global competition demands that producers of homogenous goods keep costs low; they cannot afford to be priced out by exchange rates.
We are lucky to be considered at the forefront of our industry and can therefore afford to root our manufacturing in Britain.
The UK is not set up for the “race to the bottom” manufacturing seen in other countries. The future of our manufacturing will be highly skilled and innovative. This is good news. It means that wages will be higher and jobs more secure, and it keeps us globally competitive, without undue sacrifice.
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of our stairlift business. Of the more than 600,000 stairlifts produced, the overwhelming majority were made in the UK. Long may that continue.