Manufacturing and Simon Reeve Returns to Cornwall

This week the BBC documentary by Simon Reeves returned to Cornwall to explore some of the challenges around housing availability caused by second home ownership and the growth of Airbnb which has caused many privately rented houses to be withdrawn from the market.  It also considered how we can develop more industry and better-paid jobs in Cornwall.

The loss of Holmans forty years ago was a major blow to this part of Cornwall.  At its peak, it employed thousands of people in Camborne and the rock drilling technology for which it was famous was exported to mining projects around the world.  It was one of a number of businesses that gave Cornwall pride and confidence and there were similar companies and industries throughout the UK.  

In my view, as a country, we have undervalued the importance of both primary industries like agriculture, fishing and mining, and manufacturing industries like engineering for far too long.  It is the reason that we continue to see problems of unbalanced growth with well-paid jobs being concentrated in the Southeast and built around financial services.  It is the reason that other advanced economies tend to weather storms more effectively than the UK, and it is the reason that we always appear to have lower productivity improvements than comparable economies.

The problem is that economists have tended to view service industries as the future and the way economists measure economic growth exaggerates the role of service industries and underplays the importance of manufacturing.  GDP simply measures the value of invoices and salaries.  Professional services like law, accountancy, public affairs, and banking can only ultimately survive if they have wealth-generating host businesses like manufacturers to pay their salaries.  Apex manufacturing businesses support entire supply chains of smaller manufacturers, suppliers of raw materials and service providers, and this is critical to economic success, generating momentum and resilience in communities outside the Southeast.  It is time that we valued those who produce and make things once again.

A manufacturer will also provide employment in the regions.  There is a food manufacturer in every part of the UK except Westminster, and food companies have a local identity which gives local towns pride in place and will often provide multiple apprenticeships.  The BBC documentary looked at the case of Riviera Produce from Hayle which has grown into one of the country’s most successful fresh produce growers and one of two very large cauliflower enterprises in Cornwall.  It shows the importance that farming and food play in the Cornish economy.

The legacy of companies like Holmans in West Cornwall is a number of specialist manufacturing businesses that remain successful to this day.  The documentary also looked at the case of luxury yacht manufacturer, Pendennis, which employs hundreds of people and dozens of apprentices.  It also identified a further problem which is the obsession with university education in this country which is linked to the false belief that service industries and the professions somehow represent a higher calling than real technical skills in technology.  We need to change the mindset so that we recognise that real skills, the skills that create wealth and prosperity, are technical skills and vocational skills in areas like engineering, welding, computing, electronics, food science, carpentry, and construction.

A couple of months ago I visited Teagle Farm machinery at Blackwater.  It is a fantastic local success story.  I have always called it Cornwall’s answer to JCB because it is a family-owned business with a culture of excellence in engineering that exports more than half of what it makes to the rest of the world. It creates wealth for the local economy and, like Pendennis, offers dozens of apprenticeships and opportunities to local people.  

The building blocks are there to create more balanced growth in our economy.  We just need a change in focus so that we prioritise further education colleges like Cornwall College, with additional funding for vocational education, and teach the economists who influence policy to value manufacturing and primary producers far more than they have to date. Economic growth remains elusive because we spend too much time listening to economists with theories and not enough time listening to the manufacturers who create wealth.