The bells may be tolling for our manufacturing base but Helen Kay hears a happier tale from the makers and shakers of Slough.
Inflation, recession, unfair competition: we have all heard the bells tolling for Britain's manufacturing base. But talk to manufacturers on the Slough trading estate and the story is very different. They speak of longevity and prosperity.
At mechanical seals manufacturer John Crane, Bob Gibbon, the UK managing director, reports that turnover has quadrupled in the past 10 years. At Mars, too, times have never been better. In 1982 the Mars bar broke the £100 million barrier. Today confectionery sales are in excess of £500 million.
But it is not just the big guys who are thriving. Roderick Symes heads a much smaller operation. At Metal Colours, which provides powder coating and zinc plating for many a local firm, turnover has reached £3.5 million and "we're 12% up on January to February of last year", Symes adds.
So is the UK like the little boy who cried "Wolf"? Gibbon thinks that it is. "We're British, after all," he observes. "We must complain about something." Symes concurs. "We talk ourselves into depression," he insists, and lays the blame squarely at the door of the media, which "only want the bad news". Here, then, for the record, is some of the good.
Ironically, the opening chapter is distinctly inauspicious. The Slough trading estate began life in 1917, when the British Government decided to turn some prime agricultural land into a sorely needed vehicle repair and maintenance depot. Slough was considered sufficiently far from London to avoid the Zeppelin raids of World War I. But mounting costs, differences of opinion and delays rapidly turned the project into a white elephant. What had been intended as a hospital for sick motor transport soon looked more like a mortuary.
In April 1920 the Government therefore jumped at the chance to rid itself of an increasingly embarrassing venture. It sold the 600-acre site, together with all of the damaged motor transport used during the war, to an enterprising group of businessmen. Among their number was one Noel Mobbs, grandfather of the current chairman.
The Slough Trading Company (as it was called) promptly employed some 8,000 people, or half the population of Slough, to repair and sell the vehicles. But from the first it had been clear that this was a short-term venture. Then, in July 1920, the company was approached by a local business wishing to lease one and a quarter acres of land for a new factory. The Slough trading estate was at last underway.
Over the next few years Slough Estates (rechristened to reflect its shift from repair depot to industrial property developer) invested £50,000 in buildings for prospective tenants. By the end of the decade there were 130 companies on the site. Among them were firms which would eventually become household names: Black and Decker, Aspro and Gillette were all reared in Slough's industrial nursery.