As a body usually associated with protecting the countryside and historic buildings, the National Trust’s interests may seem very different from those of manufacturing. But, with the creation of the Industrial Trust last December, the organisation is taking a role in promoting industry, reasoning that the sector is as much a part of British heritage as any garden or national monument.
The aim is to highlight manufacturing’s continuing, rather than historic, importance to British life, explains Peter Mitchell, executive director of the Industrial Trust. ‘The idea is that people can see live industry of today, the processes and the technology. By focusing on today’s industry, we hope to help them relate to the industries of tomorrow.’
The Industrial Trust plans to get people into the nation’s factories and not just into visitor centres. Mitchell believes it is technology in action, not exhibitions or displays, that will attract public interest. ‘There are some health and safety implications in bringing people onto sites, and some costs arising from that,’ he admits. ‘But if we could persuade companies that it can be done, we could achieve so much.’
The trust’s other main aim is to attract more children to careers in engineering. Mitchell says: ‘We want to encourage more young people to see that engineering is highly rewarding.’ The trust is seeking industrial backing and partnerships for this work.
Mitchell, who has been seconded to the Industrial Trust for the next three years, has spent all his working life with the National Trust. In the early 1980s he was involved in the acquisition of the historic Aberdulais Falls copper smelting works a site he later helped reinvigorate with a hydro-electric project. While there, he realised that the public was not making the link between industry of the past and that of the present. ‘Industrial heritage is important,’ he says. ‘But there is no correlation between many historic sites and modern plants. People don’t relate them.’
Mitchell believes that making goods and adding value is vital to the UK economy. ‘The CBI says that two-thirds of the UK’s exports are products of manufacturers. It seems to be obvious: the fountainhead of wealth creation must be based on making things. And it also seems to me that a number of government policies are moving in this direction.
‘There is much potential for technology and innovation in Britain, and we want to encourage the public to see dynamic industry and technology. This could change the public’s perception and willingness to take the long-term view and if you’re going to innovate and research, it will take a long time.’
The trust already has a pilot project. The Sheffield-based South Yorkshire Industrial Project aims to build links between manufacturing firms, universities and heritage bodies, and to create education and public access programmes. Backers include British Steel and Firth Rixson.
Mitchell hopes factory visits will help dispel the myth that manufacturing is an uncreative and dirty smokestack business. He believes industries such as steel will benefit, as people will see high-tech processes far removed from the sooty history commonly seen in industrial heritage museums. A second project on the cards would allow the public to visit a modern working coalmine at Tower Colliery in south Wales.
But Mitchell admits there is still much work to be done to achieve the trust’s draft five-year plan to set up around 50 projects nationwide.
Support is being sought from industry. Legal work is needed to establish administrative and operating structures between the trust and its outlets. And an internet site, which could be sponsored and run by an IT firm, would enable schools to organise trips to factories.
In cash terms, the central Industrial Trust organisation might cost as little as £100,000 per year to run. But before fund-raising can get under way, a president is needed. ‘The right choice of president is essential to the project,’ says Mitchell. ‘He or she must have key contacts, especially with high-tech companies.’
Widespread public recognition of the trust’s logo is another, medium-term, target.
Mitchell sums up: ‘Perhaps because the Industrial Trust is independent, and as it hasn’t been initiated by any one facet of industry, it can do what is right for manufacturing as a whole. I think it quite critical for Britain to make things of added value. Without it we’re in dead trouble. So this partnership with industry is vital.’
Mitchell speaks with enthusiasm about the aims and methods of the trust. He has persuaded a small band of trustees to help, and will soon have a president. Their task now is to convince you, the engineer, to open up your plant and to get the general public to open its mind.