UK: Diversity fights adversity in the East Midlands. (2 of 3)

UK: Diversity fights adversity in the East Midlands. (2 of 3) - Such work is echoed, on a different scale, by that of the Nottingham Development Enterprise (NDE). Founded in 1988 by chairman David White and operating under the aegis of a public/private p

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Such work is echoed, on a different scale, by that of the Nottingham Development Enterprise (NDE). Founded in 1988 by chairman David White and operating under the aegis of a public/private partnership, this initiative seeks to act as catalyst in the city's regeneration. The original impetus is traced back to a television documentary which, according to a still clearly indignant White, "depicted Nottingham as full of drug addicts, lesbians and little else".

Several years later the NDE can lay claim to a host of completed projects, most notably the transformation of the city's old Lace Market into an active commercial centre. Of current concern is the development of a light rapid transit system, the first line of which awaits parliamentary approval this autumn. Given the go-ahead and necessary £16 million in funding, a tramway will run from Hucknall in the north into the city centre, at the same time traversing some of the region's most severely depressed areas. The aim is to relieve these pockets of high unemployment through increasing mobility, presenting the option of alternative places of work.

What is clear is that White, a fiercely loyal spokesman, regards any form of central planning as anathema, rather affirming a "wholesome belief that Nottingham solutions are best for Nottingham". Clearly sharing in such sentiments, Boots - the city's largest employer - has announced plans for the construction of a £150 million commercial centre (including a World Trade Centre) over an 18-acre canalside site.

While often eclipsed by its prosperous neighbour, it is Derby that has been accorded the lion's share of recent inward investment - namely Toyota's £704 million plant to the south of the city. Direct employment on the site is projected at 3,000, with estimates for the jobs created in associated trades put at around five times that figure (many of the latter, however, will inevitably spill across the border to the West Midlands automotive components industry, if not overseas).

Yet despite such high-profile coups, the East Midlands' overall performance in luring overseas investors is disproportionately low compared with its share of the gross domestic product. On a national league table, Toyota notwithstanding, the region would feature somewhere near the bottom.

A significant number of the firms which do come tend to be engineering based. Nigel Chubb, director of the Engineering Employers' East Midlands Association, welcomes the sound investment programmes pursued by many foreign-owned companies. The Nottingham-based pipe maker Stanton - since 1985 part of the French Saint Gobain group - is singled out for its continued capital expenditure on upgrading production equipment. Elsewhere, in Lincolnshire, the acquisition of Rose Bearings by the Japanese Minebea group has enabled extensive modernisation and the building of a new ball bearing factory in Skegness.

It is such emphasis on investment which will allow firms to "hit the ground running when the upturn occurs", explains Chubb. While the incidence of redundancies in the sector is currently three times higher than that of last year, he is cautiously optimistic about a rapid bottoming out and an equally swift recovery. Significantly Chubb talks of the recession as a "denting" rather than a "hammering".

Other traditional industries of the region seem to be faring less well. Both footwear and textiles, having for years struggled against a tide of low cost imports, have of late seen their markets further eroded by the strong pound. More specialist areas, such as lace making, seem to have held their own, a fact frequently attributed to the emphasis on quality, a high design content and heavy technological investment.

In a city virtually synonymous with the trade, Nottingham's Guy Birkin (established 1827) lays claim to being the world's oldest commercial lace manufacturer. The company's archive of lace patterns, providing a lexicon of evolving styles, testifies both to its longevity and that of the craft. Yet its continued presence owes much to the company's involvement in the development of lace-making technology in the early 1980s.

According to marketing director Eileen Measures, the advent of the Jacquardtronic machine - with its high output, rapid turnaround and ability to produce complex, affordable patterns - has transformed both the industry and the market. "A clear example of a machine creating a fashion," she observes. Given its high cost, it has also forced smaller operators into amalgamation.

Yet the region's lace industry, having led in innovation, is now well placed internationally. Such resilience, taken together with the host of incoming companies, augurs well for the area's continued prosperity. While heritage museums commemorate a formidable industrial past, the East Midlands appears far from relinquishing its hold on the present.

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