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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Built in Britain

Combination of the UK's removing its policies and laws from oversight of the European Union (legally on 31 December 2020) and resonating impact of Corona Virus on business and society at large (at all levels) have raised fundamental questions on our way of living. Warnings from the scientific community at expert level tell us that the current viral infection, whilst minimalised through the many restrictions and future innoculations of the population is not going to go away entirely. Long term the country (and indeed the rest of the world) is going to have to live with its consequences - changing fundamentally much that we have taken for granted forever.

A further factor affecting significantly the norms we have become used to in the new millenium is awareness of the malevolent policies of an assertive Chinese Communist Party. Evidence of the alien nature of China's governance is nothing new; but most recent example of the country's intolerance of democratic rights enshrined within Hong Kong's status after handover of the former British colony to China is now at the forefront of rising tensions from Washington DC to London with Chinese leadership.

Beyond this current stress point is the more significant global price being paid for the 'export' of yet a further viral infection emanating from China - which seemingly had been hidden from international scrutiny in its early stages in Wuhan. Every country, region and business is paying a high price in toll on human lives and economic stability - a price whose totality is yet to become fully known.

Policymakers are now having to decouple their national interests in trade and investment, as well as technology advances, from once robust partnerships and deals in China. Where once China had the appearance of a benign new market of enormous size and potential - the question of level playing field with the outside world was clearly not worthy of a moment's consideration by power players in Beijing now led by its 'President for Life'. All of this is containable for the moment, even if the expected grab for control of Taiwan (an independent country) emerges hard on the heels of repressive control of Hong Kong's population. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would definitively change the stakes for how the West (and everyone else) treats with the Chinese Communist Party for the rest of the century - and all bets would be off as far as Western companies retaining factories or sub contractor relationships with Chinese production sources.

The UK business dependence on China for volumes of manufactured goods has grown exponentially over past decades. A gradual inching up on the levels of unit value and techology has now reached the point where strategic sectors are becoming dependent on importation from a communist source at odds with values of western democracies from Australia, Singapore and India to the whole of Europe and most of the Americas. A break in the intense trading links China seems the inevitable consequence of the wakeup call brought about by the Corona Virus outbreak from Wuhan - and Beijing's seeming blind insistence on compelling unwilling neighbours to conform to rigid policies of a monolithic Communist Party.

Whereas western Europe's fixation on the malevolent machinations of Putin's Russia has been foremost in minds following on flareups in the Ukraine and takeover of Crimea - these remain serious enough to warrant wariness of military planners west of the Carpathian mountain range. But and its a big But problems now posed by Communist China aka PRC - are far more threatening to Britain's interests along with those of all our NATO partners.

Deeper fundamentals resonate from these challenges, inevitably linked as they are to Britain's withdrawal from its membership of the European Union. Self dependency at an economic level may be a pipe dream in today's global economic connectivity where supply chains range across continents almost seamlessly (but not quite in 2020). That the UK should claw back capacity of its once deep manufacturing sectors across industries; has to be a overarching policy of government. The scandalous shortcomings in supply of personal protection materials and equipment for the nation's healthcare system and those of supportive care institutions - is a wakeup call to government policymakers. For the RAF to have to fly cargo aircraft to Istanbul to recover bulk orders of supplies of elemental material for immediate needs of the NHS from Turkish sources is in itself an alarm bell of national proportions.

And so to transport where apart from heavy rail and buses - the UK which once led the world (or much of it) in design and manufacture of electric trams (light rail in today's world)) has become wholly dependent on far flung centres of excellence to provide new rolling stock. Manchester's excellent Metrolink system is one of Britain's leading light rail operators - but one which is again solely reliant on European imported equipment all the way from power systems and running equipment to glazing, seating and interior fixtures of all kinds. Not a single screw is locally sourced in this country. Hundreds of millions of pounds being paid to foreign manjufacturers and their workforce - ably abetted by British taxpayer at the lead of Westminster nodding donkeys. One can point to Transport for London everlasting procurement of rolling stock for Docklands Light Rail and Croydon Tramlink for offshore sourcing to the detriment of UK industry, employment and engineering skills. Not one new UK light rail startup over the past decades has availed itself of British suppliers - including Blackpool and Lothian Region. Glasgow's new generation of subway trains for its singular line will emerge from the EU and Blackpool is seemingly wedded to foreign suppliers.

And yet not more than an hour's drive away is a large industrial plant once the principal manufacturing centre of British electric trams - now vacant and seeking a new owner (please). The city of Preston was once the centre of the universe for tramcar design and construction (in a manner of speaking) - shipping out from its docks fully finished trams of all shapes and sizes to expanding systems from South Africa, Australia to Argentina. The UK sacrificed its prowess in tram design technology from the second half of the last century - never to recover. Today urban planning and environmental lobbies are pressing hard for this country to become carbon neutral, favouring electric power systems over the diesel and petroleum dominance of preceding generations - the role of electric urban transport along with other non polluting modes is at the forefront of regional strategies. Only this week the City of Bristol announced intention to create a traffic free centre removing cars and non essential vehicles in favour of pedestrian and bicycles along with advanced buses utilising new power systems. Blackpool's Council with its assertive transport operator is one of the UK's urban progressives already planning introduction of electric bus buses (all built in the UK) through the 2020s - along with new extensions to its light rail service in the Fylde.

Regaining former prowess in a century of rapidly advancing technological applications across business and industry sectors is an inspiring clarion call to generations considering their own independent futures. The Fylde coast and neighbouring clusters of advanced engineering and skills training in Preston, Samlesbury, Warton, Fleetwood and Lancaster all retain capability to capture former pre-eminence in today's changing world. Trams, trains, electric power generation, even faster communications transmission - (the Fylde coast is the European receiving point of new electronic communication links cutting real time seconds off information being transmitted from Wall Street, Chicago Board of Exchange and numerous other cross Atlantic business centres). Whereas Preston Docks once saw tall ships set sail westward - with goods bound for emerging economies around the world - now infomational value affecting billions of pounds of transactions is landing on the Fylde shoreline for onward instant transmission to the City and Europe's financial power centres.

The past and the future alongside in Rigby Road Garage. Renumbered 1970s Atlantean stands next to the latest tranche of Alexander Dennis models arriving this summer. The next generation of electric powered buses will transform this hundred year old transport hub within the decade. Image : Courtesy BTS

Seeing Britain's brand transformed and freed from political intransigence elsewhere will unleash an undreamed of future enabling new generations to grasp dynamics of the 21st century. Life at present is bedevilled by an alien virus with the uncertainties of economic recovery posing strategic problems for competing powers. The dimensions of pending changes wrought by technological innovation and environmental pressures globally have yet to be fully comprehended. Glimmers of change within are now beginning to surface around us here on the Fylde coastline.

Sun, sea, sand - and technology.

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