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Textiles and the city

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Last week, Clarion, alongside BHP, was delighted to host a roundtable lunch for board members of some of the leading textile businesses from across the region.

The lunch was an informal get-together designed to prompt discussion on the challenges and opportunities in a rapidly changing economic landscape. We were delighted to be joined by two leading lights from the textiles industry - Stewart McGuffie, CEO of Allied Textiles and Bill Macbeth OBE, Managing Director for the Textile Centre of Excellence.

Stewart was kind enough to provide an update on the Allied group, which he has run since 2007, as well as discussing what he thinks the impact of Industry 4.0 will be on both the industry and the region. Bill, meanwhile, offered an overview of some of the innovation the Textile Centre of Excellence has led on in the region, the opportunities this represents for the sector and what he thinks will happen once the impact of Brexit is felt in the region.

The region’s past and future

Historically, the West Yorkshire region has always been recognised as a cradle of innovation, particularly for textiles, which was the industry that helped trigger the original Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. The region, and the city of Bradford, in particular, rose to prominence during this period as an international centre of textile manufacturing.

Now, as the world heads full-tilt into a fourth industrial revolution, it’s interesting to consider the impact it might be having on both the industry – textiles - and the town – Bradford - that spearheaded the first.

Industry 4.0

If the first industrial revolution harnessed water and steam power to mechanise production; the second used electric power to create mass production and the third used electronics and information technology to automate production, what is the fourth doing?

The fourth industrial revolution, or ‘Industry 4.0’, is building on the achievements of the third, with the adoption of computers and automation, and enhancing it with smart and autonomous systems powered by data and machine learning. It includes cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things, cloud computing and cognitive computing.

The impact on manufacturing promises to be remarkable, and we are already seeing its effect in Europe and the U.S., where highly automated and flexible factories can now compete against low-cost factories in Asia.

Changing the game for the textiles industry

Ironically, it was increasing competition from much cheaper overseas factories that helped drive the decline of the textiles industry in the UK.

The technological transformation that lies at the heart of Industry 4.0 is changing the game for the textile industry, from concept to store-shelf and everything in between.

New digital technologies are totally transforming customer behaviour and expectations, as they demand new and more personalised products in much shorter timeframes than ever before. The impact of this trend has been significant, leading to the rapid growth of online shopping and delivery operations, and the concomitant major decline in high street retail.

These changes at the customer-facing end are increasingly felt further ‘upstream’ in the supply chain. As consumers demand more options much faster, the need for a shorter supply chain is encouraging companies to reshore production back in the UK. Similarly, customers, rejecting the throwaway fashion trends of the early noughties, are embracing more sustainable options, helping to shift the entire sector’s business model from a supply chain to a demand chain. This will also encourage clothing production to increasingly move back to local, distributed hubs, like those in Yorkshire.

On top of this, wage increases in Asia are also helping to make UK textile production a much more attractive option.

Embracing technological change is key

All this technological transformation, and the simultaneous increase in wages in Asia, could help bring the textiles industry back to the UK in a big way.

The fact that businesses must embrace change to survive is something that many of the Yorkshire region’s most successful – and oldest – textile companies already understand.  Just ask the experts at our textiles dinner. One attendee at the roundtable represented a company that has existed since 1766. While these companies represent a real link to the historic past of Yorkshire, their future has always depended on embracing “the latest technological developments and continually invest[ing] in the latest state of the art machinery to maintain and improve” the quality of their brand.

Brex-tiles

While things may be looking brighter for the regions textiles sector, the uncertainty of Brexit remains an unavoidable issue. The EU accounted for 74% of the UK’s exports of textiles and apparel in 2016 – a whopping £9.1 billion in trade. The textiles industry has also always been heavily reliant on overseas workers to provide the labour it needs – this was true in the 1800s, and its true today. EU citizens make up a significant section of the textile manufacturing workforce, which the industry runs the risk of losing under Brexit. And while the specialist skills of textile manufacturers are much in demand, they often don’t meet the £35,000 Home Office threshold required for non-EEA visas.

In Bradford, at the centre of the textiles industry, the potential impact of Brexit looms large over the city - according to a UK government analysis, Yorkshire could miss out on between 1.5% and 7% of GDP growth following EU exit.

However, Bradford is choosing to be proactive about its future. Just last week, a campaign to set up a Business Improvement District (BID) in Bradford city centre was voted on and passed, with 79% of the 630 businesses and other organisations voting in the affirmative.

Business leaders are aiming to invest more than £2.5 million in the city’s retail centre over the next five years, to improve the heart of the city and lift the fortunes of traders and service providers.

Town and city centres across the country have been under increasing pressure from the economy, uncertainty over what Brexit will bring and huge changes in shopping habits – fuelled by the growth in online retail activity – over the last 10 years or so.

The BID aims to ensure, through money, collaboration and innovation, that Bradford town centre is a place that people want to spend time.

Regardless of Brexit, Bradford has taken its future into its own hands, demonstrating that through resilience, and by embracing innovation and the kind of inspirational thinking that birthed a revolution, the textile sector and the region that created it, can go onto even better things in the future.

If you want to learn more about our thoughts on the textile sector and its future, please email marketing@clarionsolicitors.com.

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