There is no quick-fix solution to the problems being faced by clothing and textiles companies in the East Midlands. This was the conclusion drawn at a Friday afternoon meeting between representatives from the region's textile and clothing companies and MEPs, politicians, and industry bodies.

Delegates heard how competition is likely to get more intense as world trade continues to open up and that garment assembly will continue to shift to low-cost offshore locations. They were advised that in order to secure a future, companies must exploit their strengths in innovation, design, marketing, and retailing. They must focus on niche markets and added value, and they must communicate with their local politicians, MEPs, and industry bodies to ensure that UK textile and clothing companies can compete internationally on a level playing field.

The forum was organised by the East Midlands Clothing and Textile Partnership (EMCAT), a lobbying organisation representing the industry in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Northamptonshire, and Lincolnshire. Together these counties make up the UK's most significant region for employment in textiles and clothing, but have all been hit by closures and redundancies. The most recent of which came with last month's announcement that Coats Viyella is to pull out of contract manufacturing with the loss of nearly 2000 jobs in Ollerton, Worksop, and Shepshed.

Business is not going to get any easier. Quota restrictions imposed under the Multi-Fibre Agreement (MFA) will be phased out by 2005, and this will open up European markets to increased exports from India, China and Indonesia. And the high strength of the pound continues to hit exports and makes British products amongst the most expensive in the EU.

There are other, less publicised, threats too. Unlike the US and Japan, there are no obligatory labelling requirements for garments produced in the EU. "If consumers were given this information they might be prepared to pay a little extra to support the domestic industry," said Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat MP and joint chairman of the EU All Party Textile Group. He added that he has started a petition to put pressure on Westminster and Brussels to address this.

Roger Helmer, Conservative MEP and member of the EU Employment & Social Affairs Committee said: "We have to accept that the industry will continue to change. Government assistance must focus on restructuring and retraining rather than throwing huge sums of money at the industry."

Philip Whitehead, Labour MEP and member of the EU Environment Committee, added: "We can't compete on manufacturing costs, but we can make sure that European regulations and initiatives are the right ones to help this industry." The Environment Committee is looking at copyright, trademark and counterfeiting issues, but Philip said, "these have to be tackled at source."

Recommendations that have already come from the industry form the backbone of the 12-point plan laid out by the Textile and Clothing Strategy Group (TCSG) in June. John Wilson, director general of the British Apparel & Textiles Confederation noted that although the report urged all companies to get involved to overcome the threats facing the sector, it did not argue for protection from change. Instead, a number of initiatives were already underway to help companies build on their strengths.

"Stephen Byers has set up a special unit within the DTI to investigate how to capitalise on the recommendations made in the TCSG report. There is no doubt that for the first time in many years we have a government that is prepared to support the industry and politicians who are interested in the plight of the industry. So we must work with them to get as much help as we can."

The Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke MP observed that the current problems have been accelerated by a long period of structural decline in the industry. This is exacerbated by the strength of the pound; and a similar situation arose in the 1980s with devastating effect. Niche markets are the way forward, he said, particularly the affluent, time-poor sectors of society for whom price is not a major issue.

Judy Mallaber MP, chairperson of the All Party Parliamentary Clothing, Textiles & Footwear Group, laid some blame with the industry itself. "We can only raise issues in Parliament if you tell us what is needed."

At a local level, Derek Mapp, chairman of EMDA, outlined the work being done to help companies in the East Midlands. Initiatives include retraining assistance, promoting the region's fashion design skills, and making resources available to help companies tackle export markets. "We cannot compete with cheap imports so we must help manufacturers look at ways they can innovate. Companies are often going out of business not from foreign competition, but from lack of support."

The over-riding message to come from the event was that globalisation is taking place and will continue to do so. The sector must accept this, it must stop looking for excuses, and should look at ways of moving forward, utilising its skills to create new opportunities.

And yes, companies can all be niche players. The definition of a niche company is that it supplies a niche market - finding that niche is the challenge.

There are no short term solutions, but then there never have been. If the industry is serious about its long-term future it needs to look to long-term initiatives.