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Putting society first

Putting society first

Betterworld founder, Chris Rea, in a special article for The Times, calls on the UK government to think longer term when it comes to manufacturing, and asks fellow manufacturers to think beyond immediate profits and take account of what is best for society. The full text of the article is reprinted here.


What UK manufacturers would like from any government is a consistent and clearly communicated long-term strategy that puts manufacturing and the environment at the centre. Unfortunately, politics can be a short-term affair as recent history underlines.

For at least three decades, successive governments have declared they believe the manufacturing sector is important to the economy. In his conference speech, Rishi Sunak said business tax cuts meant the UK was the best place to invest in the machinery and equipment that we need to grow. The problem is that creating any sort of nationwide transformation could take up to a quarter of a century.

As Sunak did to distance himself from his predecessors, the first thing most new governments do is dump the ideas of the last government and replace the old ones with new ones. This would not be so bad, except they also usually hire new people across the board to implement the new ideas, instead of keeping on the best people who were doing a good job managing the old ideas.

Whatever is announced during the party conference season, there will not be, and there cannot be, any wholesale change, because of this lack of continuity in government. All we can hope is that we, as manufacturers, might have ideas to contribute to the creation of policies that would be good for the country.

There is then a chance to be heard by the decision-makers in government who are temporarily in charge. Yes, it has really got to be, “Do not ask what your government can do for you; ask what you can do for yourselves.”

From the manufacturing side, we sometimes are our own worst enemies. The very large manufacturing businesses lobby for state aid as they move thousands of jobs around the country, or from country to country, for the best grants and the greatest likelihood of their own commercial success.

In an ideal world, manufacturers should attempt to lobby quietly, for the good of society and not for ourselves. We need to be supportive of whatever government is in charge and attempt to nudge policy in the right direction for the country at large. We can’t hope to solve everything at once, so we need to ignore the waves, pick a few tides, and master the currents that have the possibility to take the country as a whole in the right direction.

In 45 years in business, I have had minimal contact with politicians and almost none with ministers, although I have made personal donations to one Labour politician and one Conservative politician, one Rishi Sunak. The few interactions I have had — including twice being in the same room, with a lot of other people as Sunak — have left me a positive impression in all cases.

When our engineering business was a small enterprise, I was invited to an industrial forum led by the then minister of state, Stephen Byers. He listened diligently and wanted to do the right thing for the country.

On another occasion I joined a group of eight other people from South Yorkshire to a meeting with the then prime minister, Tony Blair, in Downing Street. The subject was proposed health and safety legislation, which in my opinion and that of many others, would have been draconian, would not have made anybody healthier or safer and would have been destructive to UK manufacturing. The prime minister listened to us and others and I have little doubt there was at least some point to the meeting in that it influenced beneficial outcomes for society.

The last occasion I met with a minister was twice with Grant Shapps, when he was secretary of state for energy security and net zero. I have taken a great interest in the need for energy storage, specifically battery arrays, something that I have zero commercial interest in, but I do have a passionate interest in the environment.

Tony Blair and William Hague implied in a joint paper earlier this year there may be a need to attract more expert advice and opinion for government ministers, mimicking the best practices in the United States.

Absent that external expertise, no manufacturer should expect anything different from what they have seen in the past. But every leader of a significant manufacturing business should be willing to positively contribute, putting society before themselves, as a stronger society would be better for everybody, including manufacturing.

If manufacturing expects more from politicians, we need to stop purely lobbying for grant aid, tax breaks or legislation that favours one part of society over the other. We need to start from this perspective: ‘This policy could be good for society, with the by-product also being good for manufacturing.’

Chris Rea is founder and managing director of the AES Engineering Group of companies.

To read The Times article, click here.


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