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Review Friday, 15 December, 2000, 10:17 GMT
Britain's business pulse

As the roving correspondent for BBC Two's Working Lunch, Rob Pittam has rare access to businesses across the UK. Here he gives a personal view of how industry faced the challenges of the past year and is approaching 2001.

From farm to foundry and hotel to hatmaker, small and medium-sized businesses across the UK have a fight on their hands.

On my travels around the country I hear a familiar litany of complaints about interest rates, exchange rates, cheap imports and red tape.

It all means the industries which for years provided the bedrock of the UK economy look set to continue their decline.

Across the country, textiles manufacturers have found the going too tough - from shirtmakers in Londonderry to tweed businesses in the Scottish Highlands.

The loss of 2,000 jobs at Vauxhall in Luton and the problems at Rover have highlighted the huge dependency many suppliers have on the motor industry.

Crushed by the pound

In areas such as the Midlands, small engineering firms are falling by the wayside, often crushed by the continuing strength of the pound.

Big names,such as the bicycle gear maker Sturmey Archer, occasionally join them. This week the long-established Nottingham company's assets were auctioned off.

As one manufacturer told me: "If we can't automate it, in five years' time we won't be making it."

But in the face of all this, some very British qualities are coming to the fore, such as resilience and innovation.

The spirit of entrepreneurship seems alive and well. There's a growing trend for people to set up on their own, especially in the burgeoning high-tech sector.

Spirit of free enterprise

The consumer dot.coms might grab the headlines, but it's often in the less glamorous world of business-to-business that success is to be found. However, even the best business plan needs a helping hand.

Redditch made its name through needles; there's only one factory left, although it does provide one quarter of the world's supply.

But the town realises it must attract "new economy" businesses to ensure there is a constant supply of jobs for the workforce.

Even the local training centres are now liaising with business to ensure people are acquiring the right skills for the jobs that might become available.

One thing I have noticed is that low wage areas such as Northern Ireland and the East Midlands can easily become reliant on call centres and other service sector jobs. This can lead to wages staying low, along with basic skill levels.

Recruiting workers

There are other challenges facing British industry. As unemployment levels continue to fall, it can beome harder to fill vacancies.

A hop farm in Kent could not recruit any students for summer work so had to look abroad for employees. It has since shut down in the face of cheap imports.

Redditch's last fish hook maker also struggled to find young people willing to enter the trade. Production there has now ceased.

Fox's Biscuits in Batley runs 80 different shift patterns to cater for child care and family-friendly working. It's the only way to prevent people leaving the town for retail jobs in nearby Leeds.

Hope for the future

Legislation can also have an impact. A car breaker near Birmingham told me that the cost of cleaning up contaminated land could render the business worthless.

But amid all this transition and upheaval, there are stories of hope and endeavour. Farmers have shown great versatility in combating the many problems within their industry.

I visited two in Northern Ireland who wanted to become stockbrokers. Another in Worcestershire sells willows as an alternative fuel.

And there was the former personnel officer having the time of his life travelling the Highlands in full dress telling stories from Jacobite history - helped by a job start allowance.

In a few years' time, there's no doubt the face of British industry will have changed considerably. But the characteristics that helped build the economy should stand it in good stead in the future.

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See also:

02 Nov 00 | Business
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01 Sep 00 | Business
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06 Jun 00 | Business
24 May 00 | Business
10 Apr 00 | Business
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