UK: Fairy tale factories. (1 of 3)

UK: Fairy tale factories. (1 of 3) - Britain's manufacturing base is mostly huddled in anonymous sheds on industrial estates, but Jeremy Myerson located some old architectural structures which have now been adapted to new technological demands.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Britain's manufacturing base is mostly huddled in anonymous sheds on industrial estates, but Jeremy Myerson located some old architectural structures which have now been adapted to new technological demands.

The thesis of "Theme Park Britain" - a land of beefeaters, punks and heritage trails devoid of manufacturing - has been well rehearsed by the economic pundits in recent years as the trade deficit on manufactured goods has progressively worsened. "Where are our factories?" they enquire. How will we feed and clothe 60 million people selling hamburgers and insurance policies in a service economy when our European competitors have a stronger production base? How indeed?

The erosion of Britain's manufacturing capacity is now the subject of a fresh bout of soul searching given the prospect of closer economic ties with the rest of Europe. Many of our fine buildings which once housed industrial production are now museums. Or as in the case of the Hoover Building on London's Western Avenue, that spectacular cathedral of commerce built in 1930 by Wallis Gilbert, the target for supermarket chains.

To discover just how hollow our commercial heartlands have become, to learn to what extent factories are now missing from the traditional landscape, I set myself the task of locating at least half a dozen UK manufacturing companies based in buildings or on sites of historical interest. The problems that they encountered in renovating and updating their premises to suit modern production would give some indication of the way in which the British are adapting the old architectural infrastructure to new technological demands.

I knew that it would be a difficult task. I felt sure that if the brief was reversed to entail locating half a dozen former factories which were now tourist centres, conference rooms, bowling alleys or restaurants, the job would be made much easier. Nevertheless, I went ahead, tapping the pulse of a shrinking manufacturing base huddled together for the most part in anonymous sheds on ugly industrial estates.

The quality of working environment offered by these modern UK manufacturers leaves much to be desired. But then Britain's planning laws which put industrial sites into specific zones are also a factor. According to British cutlery manufacturer David Mellor, Britain is lagging behind other European countries in integrating working factories into the community in order to stimulate local industry and offer a better setting for production workers.

"Switzerland is a classic example. Its industry isn't penned into industrial estates," elucidates Mellor. "It is spread all over the country, often in surprising locations. The Swiss build their industrial plants to a very high standard. They put in the same care and attention to factories as we do to our universities."

Mellor's own factory is built at Hathersage in Derbyshire's Peak National Park on the site of a Victorian gasometer, and has been hailed as one of the most significant new industrial buildings of recent years. Mellor says that he undertook the project to tackle the issue of taking manufacturing into a rural area. But others evidently lack Mellor's determination, design knowhow and sensitivity in overcoming the odds to create a factory in an unusual woodland setting.

My search for exceptional working factories went up many blind alleys. The British Railways Property Board, for instance, has many unusual vacant buildings - former stations, shunting sheds, even redundant tunnels - which it sells off to private businesses. But few if any are ever used for manufacturing.

Redundant churches, however, proved more fertile territory. Here the Rural Development Commission has been supporting small production firms in putting these often beautiful old buildings to fresh use. The story of FB Fabrications, a Cheshire firm run by three brothers which manufactures plastic conservatories, is a good example. Peter, John and Eric Farrelly purchased a derelict centuries-old chapel at Normansheath for £11,000 in 1984. The place had first been seen on a map in the 1600s. It was a Methodist chapel from 1811 to 1914, a wheelwright's workshop until the 1930s, and later a storage warehouse for a builder.

The brothers completely gutted and reroofed the building, knocking down a lean-to dwelling at its side and adding extensions on both sides to double the ground floor area. They were given planning permission for industrial use because it had been a workshop until 1936 but, says Peter Farrelly, "the planners wanted the building to look like a chapel". The brothers did their own architectural drawings and the Rural Development Commission aided them in the refurbishment of the building.

As the refurbished factory took shape, the main block and roof span created a void ideal for the machinery that they use. The result is an unusually ideal setting for the company, which has seven staff and a turnover of £500,000. "It's not like a normal factory," says Peter Farrelly. "In the country there's the wind howling and the mice. We've also got a poltergeist. Things keep disappearing and reappearing. But all three of us live within two miles of the place."

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