Caroline Flint: 'Covid has proven manufacturing in this country can be revived'

From playing a central role in the industrial revolution to Sheffield’s proud heritage in steel-making, to 19th century wool mills or in more recent years the energy sector, Yorkshire’s position in the manufacturing industry has been integral to the country’s success.

And it is a strong base in manufacturing which must be revived for the economy to survive the devastating recession caused by coronavirus.

The Chancellor revealed this week that the UK economy is not scheduled to recover to pre-crisis levels until the end of 2022.

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And Government borrowing is on course to hit its highest level since the end of the Second World War.

Former Don Valley MP Caroline Flint. Photo: Getty

But former Don Valley MP Caroline Flint, who has just taken up a new role with think tank the Institute of Prosperity, says there is a real opportunity to recover and reinvigorate the country’s manufacturing sector at the same time.

“We [at the Institute for Prosperity] want to talk about how we make more money in this country, and we want to make money to line everybody's pockets, but actually money that can create jobs, and give everyone a better sense of the future,” Ms Flint, who lost her seat to the Tories in December last year, said.

“We were talking about this before the pandemic but with Covid, I think it just brings into focus how we need to rethink how our economy is going to run in the future. It cannot be business as usual.”

Coronavirus has brought the biggest challenges the manufacturing sector has faced in living memory.

The manufacturing sector in Yorkshire makes up circa 15.6 per cent of the region’s total economic output, with some 12,000 manufacturing businesses being located in Yorkshire.

And as firms shut down as staff were unable to work from home, there was fear over its future.

But businesses have also risen to the challenge, with swathes stepping in to the breach to provide PPE and ventilators, and repurposing their staff and facilities do so so..

“There is some good news here in the sense that there has been an injection into the economy of funds to help with the crisis,” Ms Flint said.

“I'm just reading in my local paper in Doncaster that a local firm has won a contract to help produce a vaccine with Pfizer. I know as well a Huddersfield firm is involved in manufacturing personal protective equipment.

“Now, we'd all hope that that wasn't necessarily the case because that's happened because of this virus. But doesn't it tell us something that given the will, and given the support, we can make things in our region, in our country, if we put our mind to it? And that's the sort of step change we want to see.”

Ms Flint said: “Of course, in the North, I still live in Doncaster, we're already seeing that the impact on the economies in our communities has been harder than many places elsewhere, so we've got to think about things differently.”

As a Labour MP, Ms Flint was chair of the Northern Powerhouse cross party group, and she said that while manufacturing was discussed, other topics such as transport and education often took precedence.

And as a minister under the Labour government she said: “These things would be talked about, but somehow or other, I think the other parts of the economy almost got in the way.

“So the service sector, the financial sector, I'm not saying that they aren't important, but the over reliance in terms of our economy on those sectors has been an imbalance that has gone on too long.”

She added: “I can tell you as an MP we weren't short of lobbying from different groups that were banging the drum about manufacturing, but I think somehow or another, that hasn't really gelled into a coherent voice to really hold governments to account, and I talk about governments of whatever political party”.

On this theme, Ms Flint’s new role, as chair of the think tank’s advisory board, brings together politicians from across the political spectrum including former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable, and Conservative MP John Penrose.

“For us, manufacturing has to become much more front and centre of what our economy is all about,” she said.

“Manufacturing represents 10 per cent of UK output. We want to get it up to 15 per cent.

“In Germany, according to the World Bank, it's 20 per cent. In places like Switzerland, in places like Singapore, and many other places, manufacturing is a much bigger part of their national economy.

“And we just think, not only is it right to push for a more ambitious target, but it's also what lies beneath that. It's the jobs, it's the wealth it puts into communities, and what's wrong with having more things made in Britain to sell abroad, but more things that families and businesses use here having that label too?”

The push for manufacturing also plays into the Government’s levelling up plans, and the Institute for Prosperity’s founder businessman John Mills said: “The disparity between the South East and other regions is already deep and the pandemic has made it deeper.

“Tomorrow’s generations are going to be much worse off than their parents if we fail to act.

“The UK already doesn’t make enough to sell to the world. If we do not want regions in the North, Midlands, Wales and Scotland to fall further behind, we need a manufacturing resurgence.”

Ms Flint said Yorkshire was already showing it could pull its weight in areas such as green energy in the Humber.

“We've already got opportunities happening there,” she said. “It's not a dream, it's happening there in terms of offshore wind and other firms coming in to provide the supply chain for that.

“And so we need more of that, and the good thing about it is it doesn't have to be just located in London or the South East.

“We always seem to be having to argue our case for a share of the pot, and I want to get to a future where we are given the investment and the means and the opportunities to grow the wealth in our region, not so that we are a victim, but we are a major player in the economy of our country.”

She said manufacturing had been proven to provide “good, relevant, well-paid jobs, above what we often have at the moment”.

She said: “Based on that, Doncaster and other places across the North, and in many communities that lost those big industries that made them feel part of the national endeavor and the pride as well as the money that came with that, in those communities where that's no longer the case, we've still got too many low paid low skilled jobs and manufacturing can help to change that.”