The de-industrializing of Britain

From Sheffield came stainless steel cutlery. From Stoke-on-Trent, Wedgwood china. And from Lancashire cotton mills, durable textiles that sold the world over.

But from this rugged northeast region of England came the heavy engineering of the Industrial Revolution: the locomotives and the massive steel bridges that set the pace for the modern world.

A Hartlepool official notes sadly that some of the skilled men who until recent times kept this a booming port by turning out diesel engines and enormous steel castings now ''work as garden laborers.''

The world's preeminent industrial power in Victorian times, Britain is being forced to make painful adjustments to its economy. Many traditional and now uncompetitive manufacturing industries have been, or are in the process of being , substantially run down.

To some extent, Britain, which started the Industrial Revolution, is de-industrializing.

While thousands of jobs are being created in newer areas of the economy, thousands more in older industries are being phased out. For many Britains, these changes come at unacceptable social costs such as record high unemployment , now the Achilles' heel of the Margaret Thatcher government.

The Thatcher government, while sensitive to the high levels of unemployment, feels that it is the price Britain must pay to restore its competitive trading edge in the world. Even though the figure is marginally below that of the Netherlands and Belgium, umemployment in Britain is at unprecedented levels with 13.6 percent or more than 3.2 million of the population out of work.

Nowhere has the change in the economic climate been more marked or come about more quickly than here in the economically depressed northeast region of England.

The unemployment figures for this region tell their own story: Hartlepool 24. 9 percent, Middlesbrough 24.5 percent, and Stockton-on-Tees 21 percent.

Yet curiously for such a high unemployment region, the normal industrial stereotypes, such as 19th-century smokestacks and rundown Victorian brick tenements, that apply to many northern industrial cities don't fit the description of Cleveland County, which includes Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Stockton, and Langbaurgh.

To cross the beautiful North Yorkshire moors, still summer green, and to descend into these industrial lowlands of the River Tees is to confront a landscape that has more in common with ''Star Wars'' than the Industrial Revolution.

Silver by day and briliant orange by might, the vast, sophisticated equipment of one of Europe's largest petrochemical complexes gleams in the afternoon sun and pierces the night sky with its powerful chemical flames.

Cleveland County's problems have not, as the landscape graphically shows, come about because of its failure to handle industrial decline. On the contrary, what has really caused unemployment is that in order to remain profitable basic industries have become more and more capital intensive, more automated, and more productive. In doing so, they have dramatically reduced the number of people they employ.

The steel industry is a case in point. At Redcar, near Middlesbrough, Cleveland County has the largest and most modern blast furnace in Europe producing some 12 million tons of steel a year. Yet in the last four years the steel industry in Cleveland County has shed 14,000 people because it does not need them.

The Rev. John Wilcox became industrial chaplain to the British Steel Corporation 11 years ago. At that time, Mr. Wilcox recalls, ''There were 24,000 working at British Steel. Now there are 7,000 there.'' Much of the collapse, he notes, has occurred in the last four or five years because of the world's steel glut and much fiercer international competition.

Imperial Chemical Industries, the other industrial mainstay of Cleveland County, has also shed thousands of workers to remain competitive after getting into financial trouble in recent years.

Unfortunately the shakeout of workers in these two industrial giants coincided with the closure of several exhausted coal mines, the acceptance of voluntary severance pay by dock workers, and the slimming of the engineering industry to get it down to fighting weight.

In 1981 in Cleveland County (pop. 560,000) there were 1,000 job closures every two weeks. Things have stabilized fractionally since then. Isocom, an electronics firm, set itself up in Hartlepool last year with some 150 workers.

But as Jim Wilson, public relations officer for the county, points out, ''We do hear of about two successes a week. Sometimes more than 30 men starting up here and 40 there, but we're (also) losing them by the hundreds.''

John Gillis, Cleveland County planning officer, details how swiftly the unemployment problem descended on his region:

''Cleveland County has the highest level of unemployment in any county except for the western isles of Scotland, which has a very high percentage but not in numbers.

''Of greatest significance is that more than half of the unemployed here have been unemployed for more than one year and one-fifth have been unemployed for more than four years.''

One anomaly, he points out, is that the unemployment rate - which was only 4. 3 percent back in 1974, has gone up by a factor of five in just 10 years. So, while other industrial areas of Britain have had fairly high levels of unemployment for some time, ''We have gone up from the bottom of the list to the top of the list in the last 10 years,'' Mr. Gillis says.

Paradoxically, in a region of such high unemployment, Cleveland County has some of the highest wages in Britain. This is because such sophisticated industries attract highly skilled people.

Herein lies the paradox for England's northeast region as well as for much of Britain:

If local industry adopts advanced technology and becomes productive and cost-efficient, as it must do to survive, it helps restore Britain's competitive edge in world markets. At the same time, there are substantial layoffs.

Those who have the get up and go get up and leave and find work elsewhere. If they are skilled, they frequently take off for North Sea oil rigs, or chemical and petrochemical plants in the Middle East.

Those less resourceful, less skilled, and less motivated are left behind. How to employ them is as much a challenge for local authorities as it is for the Thatcher government, which is determined to cut public expenditures but sees the costs of social benefits climb inexorably as the dole queues get longer.

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