1. Economics
October 30, 2015

Factory towns: Which British cities still have big manufacturing industries?

By Jonn Elledge

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

Whenever the British are bemoaning the state of their economy, one refrain can be heard above all others: Why don’t we make anything any more? A century and a half ago, Britain was the workshop of the world; now it has an economy run entirely for the benefit of estate agents and hedge fund managers. This seems to worry everyone a bit.

That question, though, is more misleading than you might think. Uncomfortably dependent on an over-mighty financial sector the British economy may be – but the idea we don’t make anything any more is demonstrably nonsense.

According to the sector trade body EEF, Britain’s manufacturing sector still employs about 2.6m people. It provides around 10 per cent of Britain’s GDP, and 44 per cent of its exports. Indeed, it’s only in the last couple of years the UK dropped out of the list of the world’s 10 largest manufacturing economies for the first time. (It’s now 11th.)

So where is all this making stuff happening? The greatest concentration of activity is in the Northern Powerhouse belt, as one might perhaps expect. Tthe manufacturing sector provides more than 10 per cent of jobs in more than a third of largest cities (24 of the top 65). In nine cities, it’s more than 15 per cent.

Britain’s biggest workshop of all – in terms of its reliance on the sector, if not its overall output – is Burnley, where in 2013 manufacturing still provided more than 22 per cent of all jobs. During the industrial revolution, the east Lancashire town was a centre for the wool trade; today, it’s the aerospace industry.

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Other towns and cities whose residents are still employed in manufacturing in large numbers include Derby (engineering), Sunderland (cars), Telford and Hull (all sorts of stuff). Here’s the top 10:

One city that’s a lot further down this league table than you might expect is Redcar – or rather, in this dataset, Middlesbrough, the label which is used here for the entire Teeside conurbation.

Redcar has been in the headlines a lot recently, after SSI announced it was closing its steel plant in the town, at the cost of 2,200 jobs. That’s the sort of number that will devastate any medium sized town.

In Teeside as a whole, though, manufacturing provides just 9.4 per cent of all jobs. Of the 65 cities in this table, manufacturing provides a larger share of employment in 27 of them. (The one ranked immediately below Middlesbrough, incidentally, is Bournemouth.)

So if Britain is still making things – if manufacturing still makes up a whole 10th of the economy – then why does nobody seem to know about it?

It’s tempting to conclude that it’s the old London-centric media bias at work. Just 2.6 per cent of jobs in the capital are in the manufacturing sector: on this measure, of the 65 major British cities in this dataset, it ranks 63rd. The lower end of the league table is littered with its satellites (Cambridge, Reading, Brighton, Oxford) too. Perhaps we don’t talk about manufacturing just because the government and media don’t see it.

But there’s another reason too. Since the late 1970s, Britain’s manufacturing output has increased – but the number of people working in the sector has fallen by more than 60 per cent. That’s partly a mark of the sector’s productivity, which has grown far faster than that of Britain’s service industries.

But it does mean that, where once upon a time, a quarter of British jobs were in the manufacturing sector, now it’s just 8 per cent.

This country does still make things. It just doesn’t need many worker to do it. 

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