ISSUE 04 | LONDON FOCUS | OPINION
London Industry Needs You
Mark Brearley makes the argument for keeping factories in the city.
By Mark Brearley
For me, it was a happy accident. I went to buy a tray from Kaymet, a small manufacturer in Peckham. A few months later, it became a two-family business: Ken Schreiber’s and mine.
It all started in the basement of a radio shop in the 1930s. A classic story of city enterprise. Four years ago, the business nearly evaporated. But now we’re on the up, have tripled sales, pushed into 40 counties, and grown the team to ten, making 20,000 anodised aluminium trays a year. For 71 years, we’ve been contributing to south-east London’s diverse economy.
Yet the storm clouds are gathering. Southwark Council want all the industry around the Old Kent Road to go away, they want housing instead. This threatens several hundred businesses, a few thousand jobs.
Our story is typical of London now. A production economy that had been written off, assumed to be in terminal decline, has returned to growth, alongside much of our city’s industry (11% of London’s jobs, nearly half a million). But just as that starts to be evident, we are confronted by accommodation shortages, the threat of expulsion. We need to fight for our place in the city, and I’ve been making a list of the capital’s manufacturers – 2,800 entries so far and many surprises.
Ford’s plant in Dagenham, our biggest factory, makes over 1m car engines annually. They’re expanding, taking their workforce to 2,250. But they’re the only maker here with more than 1,000 people. The scene is dominated by smaller businesses, many hooked to the London market, producing just-in-time and bespoke stuff from sandwiches to scenery. This should all grow as London’s population burgeons.
Take baking. High-volume bakers are expanding their facilities. Warburtons in Edmonton makes 23,000 loaves an hour around the clock. Meanwhile the appetite for ‘artisanal’ bread is served by 130 smaller wholesale bakeries, like Konditor & Cook, Paul and Blackbird Bakery.
In fact, food production has been the fastest to evolve. Following the craft beer and coffee roasting phenomena, London now has distilleries, soft drinks producers, a dozen new chocolate makers, and many niche food preparers. They all benefit from increasing prosperity and interest in local sourcing.
Likewise, the bespoke tailoring industry has reversed decades of decline. The city now boasts over 50 such businesses, the world’s greatest concentration. Military dress uniforms and ceremonial hats have long been produced in Tottenham and Bermondsey respectively. Now, fashion labels see Made in London as an asset. Volumes produced in around 100 city workrooms are increasing.
Londoners with creative skills and entrepreneurial drive are having an impact. Four paint producers, six gun makers, one tray and three brush manufacturers seemed anachronistic until recently. But now they’re reviving, and new companies are emerging alongside. Dunhill, Hanson and Tanner Krolle were among the few surviving branded luxury leather goods producers, but they’ve been joined by about 20 newcomers including Tallowin, Bill Amberg and Frank Horn. These are flourishing in part because the people with the desire and the skill to produce want to be here.
London is likely to lose a few more large process plants – three have closed in recent months. But the job losses aren’t massive. Nestlé did away with their Hayes coffee factory, shedding 230 jobs.
And closure of InBev’s Stag Brewery in Mortlake snuffs out 180. But over 40 new breweries have emerged, with a handful (like Meantime and Camden) up-scaling. The jobs generated by these exceed the loss of InBev. Likewise, there are now over 24 small wholesale coffee roasters – more than compensating for Nestlé’s exit.
Global shifts are also helping. Furniture production seemed doomed a few years ago; it’s growing again, with around 130 small-scale makers. And we’ve manufacturers of umbrellas, paper bags, wax, sugar, processed rice, edible oils, ladders, staging, tipper truck bodies, eyewear, go-karts, propellors, lights, tower scaffolding and tin cans.
But all is not well. Competition for space is intense. Housing growth is removing the capacity for a flexible, dynamic everyday economy. There’s an accelerated suburbanisation beyond the centre, a shrinking of chances, an increasing mismatch between the city’s vibrancy and its physical fabric. Industrial activity is being hit the hardest, and makers are not at the top of the value hierarchy. If it comes to a punch-up, the bus garages, rail and courier depots, and trade-counter businesses will win. Our city is hurtling towards an industrial accommodation crisis, unless we all shout and secure urgent action. The Mayor of London is starting to notice, but policy adjustments so far have been weak, and local authorities continue their vendetta.
We need to celebrate, win the public round, and push the policy- and decision-makers. We need to stress that manufacturing and other industry is a vital to our city – indeed to any good city – that it should be visible, understood and nurtured. Cities are the home of innovation and entrepreneurialism, a great crucible of the new. That means making industry popular and viable once more.