UK: Black Country blues. (4 of 4)

UK: Black Country blues. (4 of 4) - Truly, the locally born industry, coyly watching the incoming parade of fat-pocketed multinationals, does feel itself unfairly caught in a vicious circle of high interest rates and inflation. As they see it, it is easy

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Truly, the locally born industry, coyly watching the incoming parade of fat-pocketed multinationals, does feel itself unfairly caught in a vicious circle of high interest rates and inflation. As they see it, it is easy for politicians to mouth: "No pain, no gain". Unfortunately, sour as this may sound, history backs them up. GKN's Lees points to inflation and its by-products as the main villain. But he holds hope that the UK can quash inflation as France did when it entered the European exchange rate mechanism in 1979. "There is a lot of evidence to support that it can be done, but it is a transition. You don't do it overnight or without some pain or grief." Meanwhile, he adds, government help, in terms of further tax relief on investment and an increase in tax thresholds for smaller companies, is clearly in order.

If local restructuring and inward investment are the two legs that the West Midlands' future stands on, then it is exports that are the region's lungs. Exports in Britain are tallied only on a national basis, but Birmingham Chamber of Commerce overseas trade manager Mike Turner suggests that roughly 30% of total manufactured goods exports originate from the area. In the past five years British manufactures exports have risen by 62% from £52.5 billion to near £85 billion - a heartening start. And with almost every new foreign company setting up in Britain doing so with a view to exporting, the prospects surely cannot be bad.

Without wishing to flog the metaphor to death, the smaller companies, which year by year employ more of Britain's workers (from 27% in 1979 to 36% in 1986) could be called the fingers of the West MIdlands. Firms like Tufnol (plastics) in Birmingham, which has been around since 1929, and Dynamic Ceramic in Stoke-on-Trent, which emerged from its parent, Acme Marls, only three years ago, give the region the flexible edge that evolving industries demand.

Tufnol managing director Roger Trotman says that by early next century, consumption of plastics will exceed that of metals. Dynamic Ceramic is finding that it has more luck convincing German or Dutch engineers to adapt to its high-tech products than the British. But much to its merit, it is exporting to 50 centres and it has even won orders against much larger German competitors. "We have an inventive nature as a nation and we should be able to capitalise on these intellectual skills," remarks general manager Ian Birkby.

He is not the first to say it. Yet, if anything, Britain has become worse at cultivating its brains of the future. Every industrialist makes the same complaints: about the education level of applicants, the need for more skilled workers and, in engineering, as Thomas puts it, the need to make young people realise that today's engineer is no longer a "man with a spanner and an oily rag". And sometimes not even a man.

Just how critical this point is has been strongly demonstrated by the Germans, the Americans and the Japanese. Macroeconomic cycles mean a lot in the short term; but the aptitude and skills of the people mean everything in the long term. If any one element frustrates the bright scenario for the West Midlands longer term, it will be this one.

Unfortunately when you telephone Brummie enthusiasts like the Chamber of Commerce's Mike Turner, the conversation still turns to evidence of prowess of two centuries ago: James Watt's invention of the steam engine, and William Murdock's invention of gas lighting. Today, it seems, we invent exportables like Thatcherism and Monty Pythonism. Do these "add real value", as the catch phrase of the day goes? Clearly not the kind that counts. One need only ask the next worker who walks out of a West Midlands factory with his final pay slip in one hand what he thinks. The evidence of where our efforts must go is clear.

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