Want to grow the British economy? Learn the lessons of Germany's Mittelstand

A Berlin factory in 2008. Image: Getty.

Low productivity and limited access to finance have bedevilled Britain's SME manufacturers for decades. Beverley Nielsen, the LibDem candidate to be mayor of the West Midlands, believes the solutions lie in Germany.

I've been on many overseas trade missions since becoming the CBI's West Midlands director in 1995, and Germany's remarkable achievements in export markets were always cited as the model to follow.

However, I think this country has more to learn from the harmonious relationship between Germany's financial sector and its so-called “Mittelstand” – the vast array of successful enterprises operating between the giant quoted PLCs, and its small businesses.

These companies tend to be family-owned and managed. Their planning horizons span generations, rather than extending merely as far as the next set of results, and although they tend to be rooted in their regions, they have global ambitions.

I have been working to support our manufacturers for more than 20 years, and although successive governments have preferred financial engineering to the real thing, in the West Midlands we still compare favourably with Germany.

Roughly 5 per cent of our manufacturers in this region are medium-sized, and able to power future growth and innovation, compared with 4 per cent throughout Germany.

However, when we look at the access to finance enjoyed by the Mittelstand, there is no comparison with the West Midlands – or any other UK region. German companies enjoy far greater support, and from a wider mix of banks in their regions, notably via municipal savings banks, co-operatives and development banks.

They also have a well-established nationwide structure of grants, and governments at the state and national level offer continued and long-term support to reduce the risk faced by the Mittelstand. The whole focus is for the long-term, and about building regional jobs and regional economies so that their national economy is balanced and sustainable.

Sadly, in this country, we see politicians – notably, the previous chancellor – only paying lip-service to “rebalancing” our economy. And when the current government abolished the highly-successful Manufacturing Advisory Service last year, it said everything about its approach to our mid-sized manufacturers.

I also believe we have much to learn from how Germany encourages those ventures to not only deliver high-quality training to their employees, but to deliver it to the wider business community.

Germany has more than 4,000 family businesses with a turnover above €50m, and more than 600 industrial family-owned companies with more than 500 employees.


The Mittelstand trains its nation: establishments with fewer than 500 employees (including branches of large companies) provide more than 80 per cent of all training in Germany. That’s 1.27m of the 1.54m training places in German companies at the end of 2013.

In sharp contrast, 57 per cent of British SMEs do not offer any staff training or development, according to a 2016 survey by the Federation of Small Businesses.

As a result of greater access to finance, and a willingness to think beyond the next set of results, the Mittelstand is far more productive than its British equivalent.

Employment in SME manufacturing in Germany accounts for 20 per cent of all employment and 22 per cent of value added. In the UK, the figures are just 15 per cent for employment and just over 15 per cent value added.

In the UK, policies towards manufacturing chop and change as government programmes swing between Conservative and Labour administrations – but always with a relentlessly centralist view.

However, the German approach to the Mittelstand combines long-term business viability, and a relentless focus on delivering the bottom-line results required for survival and success, embedded in regional culture.

As mayor of the West Midlands, I will set the building blocks in place so that our SME manufacturers can finally get the support they have deserved for so long.

I will establish a West Midlands Bank, and a £1bn Innovation Fund, to encourage young talent, skills development, expertise, universities and research centres to link into our Mittelstand, to devise practical market-applicable solutions that deliver real growth and jobs.

The focus for these businesses must also be about delivering a “mind-to-market” approach where innovations are about servicing and meeting customer or user need, through good design, real understanding of markets worldwide and a relentless desire to be best in class.

We stand at a real moment of opportunity – with renewable energy and electric vehicles taking off in world markets, with new local energy systems, battery power and energy storage all combining with connectivity to link homes and mobility for the benefit of our communities in new, exciting and sustainable ways.

Sadly though, the lack of understanding of the asset that we have in our manufacturing businesses, across the West Midlands, has been demonstrated by both Conservative and Labour governments.

They do not understand what we are contributing and how important it is. Now is our time. We must back our Mittelstand and watch it take off, to both rebalance our economy, and deliver much needed growth which must be shared across our communities.

 Beverley Nielsen is the Liberal Democrat candidate to be mayor of the West Midlands.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.