Yorkshire’s industrial clusters can reap the benefits of a net zero transition - Dr George Dibb

About half way between Rotherham and Sheffield there is a building that flips most people's understanding of British manufacturing on its head. That building is a Boeing factory that makes parts for the wings of new aircraft. These are shipped to the US for final assembly, but all of the factory’s suppliers are within a hundred miles of junction 33 of the M1.

When Boeing was deciding where to base its new factory, its first in Europe, why did it choose South Yorkshire? Because of the history of metal-forming around Sheffield, the area is home to the right mix of suppliers, skilled workers, and research & development. This “cluster” made it an attractive destination for foreign investment, creating jobs and prosperity.

We know that the UK has a whole host of these clusters but right now we’re not making the most of them. In fact, far too many people - especially those who never venture outside the M25 - have written off British manufacturing.

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New research published this week by the Institute for Public Policy Research shows us that British manufacturing has been left to decline. This has harmed places like Sheffield which previously relied on manufacturing for their prosperity. The UK has suffered an exceptional decline in manufacturing, with the number of things we're good at making falling by one third over the last three decades.

Sheffield is home to a Boeing factory that makes parts for the wings of new aircraft. PIC: Dean AtkinsSheffield is home to a Boeing factory that makes parts for the wings of new aircraft. PIC: Dean Atkins
Sheffield is home to a Boeing factory that makes parts for the wings of new aircraft. PIC: Dean Atkins

But the transition to net zero also creates opportunities. If we as a nation act now, green manufacturing can help reinvigorate the economy and help us achieve net zero. And perhaps most importantly it'll help places in Yorkshire and other industrial heartlands too, helping level up the country.

How would this work? Well, the transition to net zero is a big manufacturing challenge. Globally we need to produce a lot of things: EVs to replace petrol cars, wind turbines to replace coal power stations, heat pumps to replace gas boilers. The UK faces a choice. Should we just buy our way to net zero? Or should we also help supply our way to net zero, creating jobs and reducing our dependence on fragile global supply chains?

Lots of people think that the UK can't compete with industrial giants like the USA or China but our analysis shows that we can - in fact we already are. The UK is already the 8th largest green exporter in the world. Of all the products we need to hit net zero, the UK already has a competitive edge in one in three of them. We should build on this base to grow our manufacturing economy.

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But it is true that we can't compete with the deeper pockets of the USA or EU in every sector. In the competition to capture the benefits of the green transition, the UK needs to pick exactly which events it wants to compete in and where our advantages are.

In other words, if we want to grow the UK and South Yorkshire green economy we need to find the clusters of workers, companies and creators in the same way that Boeing did.

Our new analysis does exactly that. We find that of all the technologies the UK could specialise in, our best chances are in three areas. These are wind turbines, heat pumps, and green transportation.

We found that Huddersfield, Leeds, Halifax and Doncaster already have “comparative advantage” in green manufacturing within the UK.

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If the UK took a more active industrial strategy helping companies shift into those three important areas, we also find other parts of Yorkshire would benefit. Hull and Bradford have clusters of manufacturing close to the wind sector. Leeds and Malton have lots of businesses that could benefit if the UK excelled in green transportation. And Halifax and Sheffield are among the top places in the country to seize the opportunity of making heat pumps.

This isn't pie-in-the-sky stuff either. Our work has been backed by three major business groups, the CBI, MakeUK and the Aldersgate Group. All of them agree that net zero is a huge opportunity for the UK but that we risk being left behind by our global competitors if the British government doesn't act now.

In Westminster people talk about “post industrial” parts of the country but our data tells a different story. These places aren't “post” anything. They are still “industrial” and the companies that are left are competing on the global stage.

It's time for a serious, long term, industrial strategy to support British manufacturers across the country who have been written off for too long. Just imagine how places across Yorkshire and across the country could go from strength to strength if they had a government supporting them and helping attract global investment. That's the opportunity of net zero that we have to seize as a country.

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The UK faces three generational challenges. First, growing and reinvigorating the British economy. Second, shifting the UK towards net zero. Third, shrinking the regional inequalities that condemn our country. We believe that if the UK can excel in green manufacturing it can confront all three of these at once, and Yorkshire can reap the benefits.

Dr George Dibb is associate director for economic policy and head of the Centre for Economic Justice at IPPR.

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