An action plan designed to arrest the decline of the UK's textile and clothing industry and encourage the growth of new business has been drawn up following a regional survey by consultant KPMG. One of the proposed measures is an incubation unit to nurture fledgling new businesses - particularly design based activities. Clive Hinchliffe finds many companies are surprisingly upbeat about their future prospects.

After years of seemingly interminable decline, the men and women who run Britain's textile and clothing companies could be forgiven for feeling less than optimistic about the future of the industry. Business failures are still running at nine per cent - nine times the average for industry generally - and the strength of sterling continues to squeeze export markets.

Still very little to cheer about, then, it would seem - but a revealing new study shows that many companies are surprisingly upbeat about their future prospects.

The 'Textile and Clothing Cluster Regional Strategy Action Plan 2002-2005' was conducted in the Yorkshire and Humber area, where more than 50,000 people are still employed in the industry. More than 800 questionnaires were sent out to textile, clothing, leather and associated companies and a series of focus groups were run with company representatives from all sections of textiles.

The results were a pleasant surprise for the industry's regional innovation strategy board, an employer-led organisation that commissioned the work.

"


"I was absolutely staggered at how enthusiastic everyone was"
I was absolutely staggered at how enthusiastic everyone was," said Edward Stanners, chairman of the strategy board and also chairman of Berwin & Berwin - which makes 700,000 suits a year for high street names like Next, Moss Bros, John Lewis and House of Fraser.

"I went to many of the focus groups and I went along expecting that the first 10 to 15 minutes of each session would be spent lifting people's morale. The surprise was that everyone was so very positive from the very beginning. The message was 'we are going to beat this thing,' and I came away feeling extremely heartened and encouraged."

The board, which reports to the regional development agency - Yorkshire Forward - is now hoping to draw on those feelings of optimism and determination with an action plan designed to arrest the decline of the industry and encourage the growth of new business in textiles and clothing. It is hoping for nearly £1 million of aid from Yorkshire Forward and another £2 million from other sources - including the private sector - to fund the introduction a series of measures drawn up as a result of the study.

New business support
One of the measures is the creation of an incubation unit to nurture fledgling new businesses. It will be open to all areas of textiles, but the strategy board is hoping that it will prove particularly valuable in encouraging design based activities.

"There is no doubt that we have an enormous amount of design talent in this country," said Edward Stanners. "


"We probably have the most gifted textile designers in Europe and possibly the world"
We probably have the most gifted textile designers in Europe and possibly the world - look at the number of English people playing a key part in the Paris couture houses. If they were given some encouragement those people may stay in this country and set up their own businesses and that would benefit the industry as a whole."

The initial aim is to select 12 people - possibly just out of college or university, though not necessarily so - each year over the next three years. Their fledgling businesses would be supported for the first year in the hope that thereafter they would become successful stand-alone companies. The aim is to create 36 new companies over the next three years and possibly 100 new jobs. The authors of the action plan believe that this, together with a number of other measures in the report, will create at least 270 new jobs over three years.

Those other measures include investment in promoting the industry, creating a unified approach to training, initiatives on encouraging innovation and on environmental excellence and measures to improve supply chain integration. Whilst British manufacturers are unable to compete with labour costs in low wage countries, industry leaders believe that the ability to deliver more promptly than foreign manufacturers can be a key element in winning business. They are encouraging more work on improving lead times to make the most of this advantage.

The action plan also points to the creation of a one-stop-shop for advice and information - the textile and clothing industry's equivalent of a Citizens' Advice Bureau, where advice and guidance could be sought on anything from taxation to grants, effluent problems and where to obtain spare parts for machinery.

"The companies that have survived have needed to cut staff back over the years," said Edward Stanners. "That has meant the loss of a great deal of brain power - people who were capable of solving problems. This shared service centre would be somewhere where companies could go to have their problems solved or to get advice and guidance on all aspects of the industry."


"The action plan is the result of what has been the most comprehensive study of the region's textile and clothing industry ever undertaken"
The action plan is the result of what has been the most comprehensive study of the region's textile and clothing industry ever undertaken. The study was carried out by the consultancy division of KPMG at a cost of £50,000 - a figure which will be regarded as a small price to pay if it helps to turn around the fortunes of the industry.

Words of warning
There are some stark warnings in the report. "Continuing to operate as in the past will simply lead to further contraction and job losses," it says. "Any failure to implement this programme of action will lead to huge job losses not only in textiles and clothing, but across other industry clusters such as chemicals with strong textile supply chain linkages."

Despite the warnings, however, the report paints a far more upbeat picture of the industry than many people would have thought possible before the exercise got under way.

"Decision makers remain optimistic about their future, repeatedly confirming that given modest pan-industry help the enthusiasm of individual companies can lead to a renaissance of the cluster. Innovative concepts, if applied to the cluster, can also be expected to create new businesses and thereby new employment."

It concludes: "Aided by the support of Yorkshire Forward and other public sector agencies, there is every reason to believe that the steady contraction of the industry can be slowed, if not stopped."

By Clive Hinchliffe.

Further information on the Yorkshire and Humber Textile and Clothing Cluster Regional Strategy Action Plan 2002-2005 can be obtained from Yorkshire Forward. Tel: 0113 3949600