In the last century, the nature of work in our cities has changed dramatically. In 1911, many cities were centers of mining and manufacturing. How factories have evolved over the last decade has made the most successful cities become service centers. In most of the cities, mining and manufacturing were the high jobs completed back in 1911. The Great Depression of the 1930s severely affected mining and manufacturing, especially in the north. These struggles are most strikingly seen in the images of some freedom fighters who went from town to town to protest the high unemployment in the Northeast.
In 1934, the Special Areas Act provided industry support in areas of high unemployment, creating business parks and because of its focus on production in the North, this intervention has since set the tone for regional policy. In 1945, the Industrial Distribution Act, coupled with the introduction of Industrial Development Certificates, attempted to prevent the construction of new factories in the South in the hope that they would instead be built further north. The fight lasted until 1972 when Regional Development Grants offered similar machinery and building subsidies.
So what does this mean for factories in the UK today?
Well as we know, the government was implementing the measures to support manufacturing industries in the north, major foreign changes began to push British industry to the brink of major changes in the global economy. The decline in the textile industry in the interwar period had already hit the cotton cities of the Northwest hard, while the struggles of the mining industry made it difficult to work in the coalfields. Now there are still lots of small workshops and factories, as well as many warehouses, including some that are fully kitted out electric chain hoists, automated systems, high end lorries, forklift trucks and high speed doors among other modern conveniences. But even though our processes have improved, we’re very far behind in the global economy.
The election of the Thatcher government signaled a complete turnaround in economic development policy. Not only did an explicitly political focus fall on the regions, but also the manufacturing sector was opened to the full force of global competition. In recent decades, policymakers have sought to protect the manufacturing industry from the world market, but this support to the sector has only made the condition worse impacting many cities performances.
Thatcher is still being chastised in certain circles because of the decline of British production. Fair or not, that’s a misdiagnosis of the problem. From the point of view of the city’s economic performance, the lack of Thatcherism was not the lack of support for mining and production. Instead, there was a lack of a policy approach to help cities move to a more knowledge-based economy, and above all, skills training based on past industries decline.
The manufacturing sector has continued to decline since the end of the Thatcher administration due to the increasing global competition. And that has radically changed the industrial composition of our cities. It is very likely that the party leading the next parliament will continue the language of factories promotion, especially in the North.