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Manchester and the wider north west region was an engine of the Industrial Revolution. Famed worldwide for innovation and productivity, particularly in the textiles industry, the region is still a manufacturing heartland.

Keen to understand how the Cities of Making research from London, Brussels and Rotterdam translated to the north west of England and to learn more about the local challenges and opportunities, we recently brought together a group of academics, makers, businesses and business support organisations to their share insights and ideas.

As well as sharing the interim findings from Cities of Making we heard from Francesca Froy, UCL Fellow and FRSA, whose work looks at the relationship between the agglomeration of industry in a city and that city’s spatial configuration. In Manchester she is looking at the textile sector businesses and finds that this sector is well embedded into the city’s economy, with close links between it and other sectors being facilitated by the city’s form and shape.

Also joining us and bringing his considerable experience in the UK fashion and textiles sector, Patrick Grant FRSA, director of Norton & Sons and Community Clothing, described the changes that these industries have undergone in the past few decades and the negative impacts on local communities, and those further afield. Highlighting the potential for regeneration and growth, he explained that new technologies are making local production more attractive and have the potential to improve the social and environmental impacts of the sector.

Here are five takeaways from the discussion:

Skills: new, old and lifelong

This was the main topic of the day. Across sectors and across levels the manufacturing in the region is suffering from a short supply of skilled labour.

This difficulty in attracting the right people is hindering businesses ability to grow and increase productivity. Attendees attributed a significant part of this problem to the poor provision for technical skills within education, combined with a misperception of the manufacturing sector amongst young people.

Given the developments that are on the horizon from technology including automation and additive manufacturing, and our ageing society, the attendees also agreed that skills development needs to be a lifelong provision to ensure that people can remain in active and engaging employment.

Manufacturing helps people to create culture and develop community

One participant described the ability for manufacturing and making to ‘help people to generate the culture of the city’ and several of the group are involved in activities which help communities to come together using making as a catalyst. Standard Practice are working to create Manchester’s only production pottery, and plan for it to have a public face that invites citizens to engage with it. Another, Paisley UK, works with women in Oldman to harness their craft skills and build their confidence and networks.

It needs the right space to do it

Francesca’s work highlights the strong pull that Manchester city centre still retains for textile industry firms. Other attendees working in small firms are also drawn to the dense centre and to sites which contain other similar firms. The networks offered by this close-proximity are important, and we have seen similar trends in London.

However, participants were also concerned that developments, particularly in the city centre are pushing these creative activities out. Places like Manchester should learn from the mistakes that London has made in losing chunks of industrial land. London is now looking at new ways of intensifying industrial space and collocating residential with industry. Getting the right spatial mix includes protecting or providing different sizes of space. If developments in other cities can build these in from now on, then their industrial sectors will benefit.

There is great potential for heritage sectors, like textiles, in the north west

Given the heritage of the region, it is unsurprising that fashion and textiles remain strong sectors of interest in the area. Participants proposed that it could have a very exciting future if investment can help to deliver state of the art production facilities and thereby allow the region to compete with offshore production. As consumer concerns about dire conditions in fast fashion production abroad, reshored UK made fashion could be a flourishing sector. This sector is suffering from a skills gap however, and concerted effort is needed from industry and education to address it. Precision skills such as tailoring have seen a resurgence of popularity in recent years, how can this interest be spread into production jobs too?

Investment is key for the region

Investment is needed across the sector to drive productivity, from improving efficiency and investing in new machinery to supporting with training and improving the built environment. Attendees told us that accessing capital is challenging for small businesses, one suggested that a focus on software tech entrepreneurship is driving an investment model which seeks to start, scale and sell on businesses in a way which is not suited to manufacturing firms.

As government money is directed as a result of the Industrial Strategy over the next few years, it is crucial that small firms and those not focused on high-tech industries can also benefit.

The afternoon seminar was followed by an inspirational talk from Patrick Grant. Find out more about his ideas for UK manufacturing in his TEDx talk.

Thank you to Patrick Grant, Francesca Froy and all the participants for a lively debate.

We continue to explore these themes in Cities of Making. If you have reflections, please get in touch.

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