What could the future hold for East Anglia’s manufacturing industry?
Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2007
East Anglia has recently seen high-profile manufacturing casualties including Delphi and, potentially, Colman’s Mustard. So where does the region’s manufacturing industry stand now, and where is it going? BETHANY WHYMARK reports.
Norfolk and Suffolk are counties with rich manufacturing pasts – from the roaring medieval wool trade to shoemaking, car building and food production in more modern times.
But time and competition from other areas of the UK and Europe have whittled away at the area’s manufacturing heritage.
Diesel systems producer Delphi in Sudbury, Britvic and Unilever in Norwich and RAF Marham supplier BAE Systems are among the latest to put jobs at risk as they consider the future of their East Anglian operations – moves which could alter not only the economic but the social landscape of the region.
The spectre of automation, and worries that it could continue its march on manufacturing jobs, are also prominent.
With the East of England seeing the UK’s largest manufacturing workforce contraction in the past seven years, what does the future hold?
The region’s recently published Science and Innovation Audit labelled advanced manufacturing and materials – an industry exemplified by the businesses taking root at Hethel Engineering Centre – as a key area of growth.
Simon Coward, director at Hethel Engineering Centre, said: “We are disappointed when businesses close or leave Norfolk, but we are also conscious of working with businesses that are growing.
“Being a chemical engineer, I know you have to adapt to changes in customer demand and in technology. The businesses that survive are those that adapt to the changing environment.
“Infrastructure improvements make it easier to do business if you are in manufacturing or engineering – that is where I think we are seeing positive and constructive growth.”
Despite those improvements, East Anglia’s location often means that national businesses seeking to consolidate are moving their operations out of the region, rather than in.
Managing director of Norwich-based STM Packaging, Esther Evans, said logistics was key for manufacturing businesses based in or considering moving to the region.
She said: “Norfolk Chamber of Commerce has been lobbying for many years for improvements to the infrastructure of East Anglia, and the fact that the region has been continually over-looked for this investment by central government is a key factor in some companies’ decisions.”
The 2017 manufacturing outlook from BDO and manufacturing trade body EEF said there was still work to be done to equip the UK’s regions to “drive through the necessary upgrades to the business environment” to “anchor more manufacturing investment and growth”.
Despite posting the biggest drop in investment between the third quarter of 2016 and second quarter of 2017, the report said demand and output in the East of England are still strong. In 2016, 85% of its £26bn worth of exports were manufactured products.
The report said: “Achieving this during these turbulent political and economic times demonstrates the resilience and focus of the industry despite still facing a number of challenges from sectors not yet fully recovered.”
Mr Coward said: “It is difficult to give an exact picture because the sector is so broad, and different businesses within it have different drivers and constraints.
“Having breadth is good because it allows for swings in the market and brings a level of resilience.”
The EEF/BDO report says the biggest hurdle for the East is a skills shortage – “a theme which has not changed in the last decade or more and yet progress to address the problem has been, and still is, limited”.
New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, together with the region’s higher and further education institutions, is leading the charge on promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) qualifications and careers.
Craig Taylor, managing director of raw pet food producer Natures Menu in Watton, said a lack of unskilled labour in particular could become a “massive issue” for manufacturers.
The company is forecasting an 8% increase in costs in 2018, from labour and raw materials.
He suggested future investments at Natures Menu were likely to be in improving efficiency through new technologies, rather than boosting its headcount.
“We employ about 215 staff nationally and have a very low rotation of staff, but as we look to grow our business we want to use the same people more efficiently,” he said.
“We have invested at our factory in Snetterton, and that is about bringing in new technologies to deliver efficiencies, to produce more volume with the same amount of people.”
Our manufacturing past
East Anglia has a varied manufacturing history dating back centuries.
In medieval times the area was renowned for its cloth-weaving, and was one of the country’s most profitable wool-trading areas.
However its importance in the industry faded during the industrial revolution as manufacturing moved to the Midlands and the North.
Production of Colman’s Mustard began 200 years ago in Norwich, and food production remains a mainstay of the region’s manufacturing economy, from crisps and meats to fruit juice and frozen food.
Norwich’s shoemaking history is well documented – at its peak it was England’s fourth biggest shoemaking city, with at least 30 factories turning out millions of pairs. Its largest surviving vestige is the city’s Van Dal factory.
In Ipswich, agricultural manufacturing was king in the 20th century – Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies in the town was behind the world’s first commercial motorised lawnmower.
Our manufacturing present
Manufacturing is big business in the UK, accounting for half of all its exports and employing 2.6 million people.
According to the EEF/BDO regional outlook 2017, the East of England ranks third in the UK in terms of total output, with manufacturing accounting for 12.2% of that output. It is also responsible for 9.2% of the UK’s manufactured exports.
There were 13,780 manufacturing businesses in the region in 2016, an increase of 1.7% from the previous year. Its largest sectors are food and drink (16.8%), pharmaceuticals (12%) and metals (10.8%).
It is also the UK’s second most productive region after the South East and London.
There were 217,000 manufacturing jobs in the East in March this year, accounting for 6.9% of the total workforce.
However it has seen the largest contraction in manufacturing jobs of any UK region since March 2010, at -6.9%.
Our manufacturing future?
Advanced manufacturing has been identified as a growing industry in the East.
New Anglia Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (NAAME) estimates the sector is worth £4.2bn to the local economy and employs 68,500 people across Norfolk and Suffolk.
It consists mainly of traditional manufacturing and engineering businesses using high-level designs or scientific skills to produce more technically complex products and processes.
NAAME chairman Jamie Thums said the sector has “strong synergies” with other regional sectors including food and drink producers and agri-tech companies.
He believes its products, including advanced materials, ICT, sensors and robotics, will be integrated into future products and networks.
“This facilitates a fundamental shift in how products are designed, offered and ultimately used,” he said.
“Technological advances will be the source of innovation, which serves to fuel collaboration across sectors.”