UK: Black Country blues. (1 of 4)

UK: Black Country blues. (1 of 4) - Can the 1980s revival of the West Midlands continue in the recessionary climate of the 1990s? Shirley Skeel reports.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Can the 1980s revival of the West Midlands continue in the recessionary climate of the 1990s? Shirley Skeel reports.

For nearly four years Edward Roberts lived in the upstairs office of an old Victorian mill that had served as a workshop for Heath Springs since 1904. The dingy Redditch factory, purchased by him with an American partner in 1982, was filled with early 20th century hand-run equipment for turning out industrial springs, as well as the once-famous Saint George armbands.

Aside from being "so old-fashioned you could have turned it into a museum", the old mill was, unfortunately for its only resident, also "creepy as hell". So creepy, in fact, that often Roberts would dawdle over his paperwork in the bright lights downstairs well into the night, reluctant to clamber to his room upstairs with this cavernous dinosaur of a factory coiled below. The unexpected bonus from this was that his workers, some dating themselves from 1925, were touched by their new boss's dedication and every night a few would stay back with him, pottering over the workshop machinery.

Roberts, a white-haired, chunky man with the dynamic tension of one of his own chesterfield springs, had soon modernised the plant, retrained his workers and won new customers like Rolls-Royce. Re-entering the market just as the West Midlands was restructuring after the severe shock of the 1979-82 recession, the firm's prospects looked healthy.

Today, however, as everywhere, Roberts reports that business is "dreadful". Now regional chairman of the Confederation of British Industry, Roberts is approaching the deep end of his crash course in the West Midlands experience. But doubtless he will survive, if only because he has caught the local fever - its symptoms: loyalty to one's own, and a chameleon adaptability to change.

The toughmindedness of Roberts and his ilk probably counts for more than it is credited with in the survival and, until recently, the revival, of the battered West Midlands. But even taking a clinical view, one can only conclude that this once famous industrial belt will again rise to a position of national strength. The tracks laid down over the past 10 years point in one direction only. The gains in productivity, in management and work practices and in inward investment have set in motion an unstoppable transition.

As David Bowen, author of "Shaking the Iron Universe: British Industry in the 1980s", argues, the impact on the British economy may as yet be slight, but this is "simply because we are in the early stages of the process". For example, from 1980 to 1987 the gap in manufacturing output per worker between Britain and Germany narrowed from 37% to 8%. True, we still lag, and British workers in general are still 48% less productive than the Americans. But clearly progress in industry is being made.

On a greenfields site in Redditch, one of the West Midlands' quickly packaged "new towns", David Lees, chairman of engineering multinational GKN, looks out over Arrow Valley with the intensity of a man with some hard decisions before him. Down the road in Coventry, Jaguar has just announced that it will lose 1,000 workers, while in London analysts are ruing the fall in GKN's own profits. In such conditions Lees finds it difficult to say if British manufacturing will reverse its downward trend as a contributor to gross domestic product (from over 33% in 1970 to 22% today). What he can say, and does so with a grind of his jaw, is that "it is extremely important that manufacturing does not decline further; indeed, it must continue to be reborn".

What he describes as "some grounds for optimism" are what others name as two major factors underwriting industry's future: internal restructuring and inward investment.

The first was starkly seen in the remarkable revolution of the '80s when a shaken industrial management gave the boot to a smug but deteriorating past. In the early '80s recession one third of all manufacturing jobs were lost and the automotive industry, which still dominates the West Midlands, looked likely to suffocate on its own fat. The Black Country, tainted for a century by the grime of its coal fires, took on a new meaning as a dark mood of gloom settled over its silenced factories.

But new work practices, fresh management and massive upgrading of factories, some sited on top of the roofless corpses of those that never made it, slowly turned the West Midlands around. In the past decade engineering, machine tools, ceramics and components industries have been joined by aerospace, telecommunications, robotics, electronics and plastics. A dramatic shift in emphasis also boosted services to the point where they now account for 60% of the region's employment.

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