Factory towns: Which British cities still have big manufacturing industries?

SSI's steel plant in Redcar, which closed earlier this month. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

Whenever the British are bemoaning the state of their economy, one refrain can be heard above all others: Why don't we make anything any more? A century and a half ago, Britain was the workshop of the world; now it has an economy run entirely for the benefit of estate agents and hedge fund managers. This seems to worry everyone a bit.

That question, though, is more misleading than you might think. Uncomfortably dependent on an over-mighty financial sector the British economy may be – but the idea we don't make anything any more is demonstrably nonsense.

According to the sector trade body EEF, Britain’s manufacturing sector still employs about 2.6m people. It provides around 10 per cent of Britain’s GDP, and 44 per cent of its exports. Indeed, it's only in the last couple of years the UK dropped out of the list of the world's 10 largest manufacturing economies for the first time. (It's now 11th.)

So where is all this making stuff happening? The greatest concentration of activity is in the Northern Powerhouse belt, as one might perhaps expect. Tthe manufacturing sector provides more than 10 per cent of jobs in more than a third of largest cities (24 of the top 65). In nine cities, it's more than 15 per cent.

Britain's biggest workshop of all – in terms of its reliance on the sector, if not its overall output – is Burnley, where in 2013 manufacturing still provided more than 22 per cent of all jobs. During the industrial revolution, the east Lancashire town was a centre for the wool trade; today, it's the aerospace industry.

Other towns and cities whose residents are still employed in manufacturing in large numbers include Derby (engineering), Sunderland (cars), Telford and Hull (all sorts of stuff). Here's the top 10:

One city that's a lot further down this league table than you might expect is Redcar – or rather, in this dataset, Middlesbrough, the label which is used here for the entire Teeside conurbation.

Redcar has been in the headlines a lot recently, after SSI announced it was closing its steel plant in the town, at the cost of 2,200 jobs. That’s the sort of number that will devastate any medium sized town.

In Teeside as a whole, though, manufacturing provides just 9.4 per cent of all jobs. Of the 65 cities in this table, manufacturing provides a larger share of employment in 27 of them. (The one ranked immediately below Middlesbrough, incidentally, is Bournemouth.)


So if Britain is still making things – if manufacturing still makes up a whole 10th of the economy – then why does nobody seem to know about it?

It's tempting to conclude that it's the old London-centric media bias at work. Just 2.6 per cent of jobs in the capital are in the manufacturing sector: on this measure, of the 65 major British cities in this dataset, it ranks 63rd. The lower end of the league table is littered with its satellites (Cambridge, Reading, Brighton, Oxford) too. Perhaps we don’t talk about manufacturing just because the government and media don’t see it.

But there's another reason too. Since the late 1970s, Britain's manufacturing output has increased – but the number of people working in the sector has fallen by more than 60 per cent. That’s partly a mark of the sector’s productivity, which has grown far faster than that of Britain’s service industries.

But it does mean that, where once upon a time, a quarter of British jobs were in the manufacturing sector, now it’s just 8 per cent.

This country does still make things. It just doesn’t need many worker to do it. 

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.