Notes from a small island

Stuart Nathan

Features Editor

The Isle of Man is one of those places that many people in the UK know little about. Ask around, and most can dredge up a fact or two: cats without tails; a flag with three legs; a notoriously dangerous motorbike race; kippers. But other important details aren’t so well-known. When I told friends I was heading there, one person asked me if there was a time difference. I said I thought it was about 40 years.

And in some ways, I was right; it’s certainly a slower pace of life up on the little island in the middle of the Irish Sea. The capital, Douglas, has a horse-drawn tram service along its seafront promenade; there’s a flourishing steam railway, used by locals and holidaymakers alike. But in other ways, the Isle of Man is far ahead of the rest of the UK, and could teach it some valuable lessons.

Back in the 1980s, the island’s government, like the rest of the UK, decided that the future of its economy lay in financial services and built up a large sector. However, some 20 years ago, it took another look and realised that the economy had become unbalanced.

‘It really was a matter of not putting all the eggs in one basket,’ explained Adrian Moore, head of the Isle of Man Aerospace Cluster, a group of 17 aerospace companies now flourishing on the island.

The government took the decision to encourage the establishment of a high-tech manufacturing sector to bring some variety into its economy. Building on the presence of three large aerospace companies which had been established on the island for some 60 years — Ronaldsway Aircraft Company, whose roots are in ejector seat manufacture; valve specialist Swagelok; and GE Aerospace — it used a system of financial incentives to persuade companies to take root on the island. As a result, when the credit crunch hit three years ago, the Manx economy was more cushioned from its effects than the mainland’s.

Moore admits that some of the methods used by the Manx government would not be available to the UK; for example, the island’s corporate tax rate is zero, something which would not be possible here.

But asking around some of the companies, such as micro-turbine specialist Bladon Jets, laser optics producer CVI Melles Griot, component prototype maker Kiartys and body composition scanner manufacturer Bodystat, the key seems to be easy access to government and regulators.

‘We know who eveyone is, and we know that if we have a problem, we can talk to someone and get it sorted out,’ said Kiartys sales director Steve Riding.

Much of this is a function of the small size of the community. However, it’s undeniable that it’s working. The island has a growing reputation as a centre for innovative high-tech; a fledgling space sector is now taking shape, and is home to one of the entrants in the Lunar X-prize.

Moore is now looking at establishing a technical college and forming links with universities in the Northwest region, where the Manx economy already has many links, with a view to fostering the skills needed by the sector and to attract university spin-outs to the island.

Perhaps that famous motorbike race, the TT, has fostered a different attitude to risk among the Manx community. But there certainly seems to be something in the air on the UK’s tiny neighbour which the UK government should take notice of. The Manx economy is doing many of the things that the UK seems to be still only talking about, and we could do a lot worse than take a look.