You can’t change the wind

Last month saw another flame of Britain’s manufacturing history extinguished as the coking ovens at the Redcar steel plant were switched off, and decommissioned forever. With it were extinguished all hopes of saving the 2,200 jobs and 170 years of steelmaking tradition on Teesside. There has been much hand wringing and post mortems about what should have been done to save the plant, to mothball it for future use, or to protect the industry, but it is difficult to ignore the bottom line that it has never turned a profit for its Thai owners SSI since they acquired the site in 2010 and it never looked like doing so.

As the global economy again slows, and China’s meteoric rise and seemingly insatiable demand for raw materials including steel judders to a halt, global prices have plummeted, China itself is leading the world in steel recycling, which is considerably cheaper that the virgin steel Redcar makes from iron ore.

This is of course a tragedy for those skilled workers who face little hope of quality jobs in an already depressed, high unemployment area. A tragedy for the thousands more in the supply chain, and local businesses whose livelihoods depended on the plant, or its workers, and a tragedy for Redcar, an old fashioned one industry town that faces a bleak future without radical change.

The North of England, the East Midlands and South Wales are still strewn with towns that have seen better days as the mills, mines, factories and shipyards closed and invariably have not been replaced by quality jobs. But what to do? Should the government and the EU step in with blank cheques, should they bar or restrict the flood of Cheap Chinese imports that dealt Redcar its fatal blow?, making manufactured goods artificially expensive and uncompetitive.

How many times do we ask ourselves how can we protect ourselves from the ravages of globalisation instead of asking ourselves how we can benefit from it? This is nothing new of course, it is at least as old as the industrial revolution, when lynch mobs of angry textile workers led by Ned Ludd smashed the new-fangled gadgets of the new age of machines that put them out of work.

Redcar is by no means an isolated example, last month saw taxi hailing app Uber declared legal in the UK angering taxi drivers fearful of this very real threat to their livelihoods. Should we step in and save them too? What about Woolworths, Polaroid, Alta Vista, Kodak, Blockbuster, Borders, Jessops?, what about typewriters, VCRs, steam trains and milkmen? The internet has destroyed millions of jobs, should we have stopped that too or should we look to the millions more jobs, sectors and industries it has created?.

Why have Redcar, Detroit and so many more become casualties while London, Silicon Valley and so many more come up smelling of roses? Investment in short. Infrastructure, and education are key. Unless you look ahead, and anticipate change you are left with trying to resuscitate a corpse. The UK Government’s much vaunted project ‘The Northern Powerhouse’ a plan to resuscitate Northern England and Scotland faces many tests, perhaps this is the first and how it is tackled may well determine how the rest of the project fares.

We live in a world where change is the only constant, it always has been, and it is now changing faster and more profoundly than ever. Whether as an individual, company or nation you have to keep pace at worst or better, be the agent for change. To nick a quote that works well in The Islander It is the set of the sails, not the direction of the wind that determines which way we will go.

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