“I have no idea,’ said my father, ‘how Britain survives – when we don’t make anything anymore.” Producing food and manufacturing goods is relatively easy to understand. You can watch a farmer take a fellside, drain, lime, plough and plant, and create food from wasteland. You could watch him design a new plough, which could be dragged by two plough horses, instead of two horses and two oxen. Or you could watch a mill, take raw cotton and turn it into cloth that was sold in fifty countries. But all this has changed. When my father was 25, British industry accounted for 41% of the British economy. By 2013, it was just 14%. 79 per cent of our national economy is now ‘services’. What is Britain actually doing?
The answer is tens of thousands of different things. I spent last week in the Gilwilly industrial estate, just North of Penrith. At first, it could be depressing – a 1946 government scheme allocated a patch of ground, adjoining some railway workers cottages, for light industry. The earliest structures seem to have been little more than asbestos sheds, on wasteland. Even today, you can drive in circles completely disoriented between the wire compounds, and cul de sacs. But Gilwilly is in fact a small miracle, and a powerful example for British business.
By the 1990s, there were over 60 businesses on the estate. Some still responded to traditional Cumbria rural life – from animal feed, agricultural machinery, stables, wrought-iron fencing, and equestrian supplies. Some to Cumbria strengths in food. Some were shaped by the M6 corridor and the distances Cumbrians need to travel – the haulage and ware-housing companies, or the vehicle companies (new cars, used cars, hire cars, 4×4 and Japanese superbike showrooms, new tyres and tyre repairs, car-washing, spare parts).
Fifteen years later many of these companies still survive but the diversity around them is extraordinary. Stephen Armistead had spotted that containers come full from China, and return empty, so he could ship used photocopiers as cheaply to China as he could to the South of England. It’s now an award-winning green business, saving machines from land-fill sites. Nearby, at re-bike unpaid volunteers are dedicating their weeks to training the long-term unemployed in restoring bikes. They are funny, straightforward and modest. The man finances himself with engineering consultancy, and the woman by running a scallop factory in Annan. “We thought we might make enough to pay ourselves, but it didn’t quite work out, so we’re still running it as volunteers four years later.”
Fylde guitars – again hidden in an anonymous cul de sac on the edge of the estate – is, on the outside, a water-stained grey shed; on the inside, a treasure house. Gilwilly has allowed the owner to custom-build a 100,000 pound facility for gently drying rare tropical hard-woods. There is brilliant pink snake-skin wood form South Africa, deep black planks of mahogany, pale five hundred year-old Italian spruce, deep veined rose-woods from Mauritius and Brazil, and logs of ancient redwood, dredged from Oregon rivers. He and his two craftsmen are working in techniques that would have been familiar to Stradivarius three centuries ago, slowly creating over three months, hand-made guitars.
At one end of the estate, 130 people are producing Gregg’s gingerbread men, and Christmas cakes. At the other end, a workforce of the same size is producing a quarter of all the doors in the United Kingdom – over a million doors a year. JELD Wen has just invested over five million pounds in a new production line, custom-built in Spain for their Gilwilly site. The workforce, many of whom have been with company for decades, have gone from working with hammers and nails, into becoming computer and machine operators. They seemed visibly proud of the new machinery, their skills and the company. They are looking at exporting into Europe. And the government and Eden District council has reinforced the Gilwilly estate with another 3 million pounds for new road access.
The challenge now for policy-makers is to grasp what is happening on the ground: to understand how technology allows 130 people in JELD WEN’s to produce over a million doors a year; to see that JELD Wen – which seems to have all the energy and morale of a small private business, is one of a hundred divisions of a US company employing 20,000 people in four continents; while also realising that 92 per cent of the Eden economy lies in local firms employing less than five; that a quarter of Cumbrians are self-employed, and the similar number work from home.
None of this makes our economy any easier to describe to my father. Every week I see a different enterprise – a voluntary FM radio station, a microbrewery, a canoe instructor, a sheep-wool insulator, a chocolate pudding maker, bank-note printers, international governance consultants, renewable energy advisers and dance-trainers for cruise-ships. And I don’t understand how they all survive. Something, however, is working.
Gregg’s and Jeld Wen are expanding their plants in Penrith because they find Cumbrian workers are more productive, and are producing at a consistently higher-quality than their workers elsewhere. Eden farmers have won the awards this week for the best poultry farmer and the best dairy farmer in Britain. Eden – with a population of 55,000 people – currently has only just over 200 people on Jobs seekers allowance, and of those 70 per cent find work within seven weeks. This is one of the very lowest unemployment rates in the whole of Britain. Our challenge, therefore, is not to harp back to a past of giant industry; but instead to understand, or at least not harm, five thousand companies, in a thousand different micro-sectors: offering employment which is strikingly humane, and robust, in one of the most beautiful parts of the world.