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No longer the bastion of Britain

European Scene


May 8, 2008
By John Roper

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But UK fabricators still churning out windows.

My announcement of the death of the UK window industry in my last Glass Canada column of European Scene may have been a touch premature. At least, all of the people I am talking to seem extraordinarily
confident. Most of them do acknowledge, though, that things will be different from now on, it is just that no one seems quite sure how different.

Certainly the factories I have visited in the past couple of months have been busy. There was an extrusion plant that was operating only about 50 percent of its machines, but this was January and they were putting it down to the time of year. When I was in Germany in December with KBE, the company was in the process of testing a new 70mm system to bolster its portfolio for the UK market where it was expecting to do great things here this year. Of course, a lot of that will be moving market share, so who knows what the eventual result will be. I can say though, that the fabricators I have seen were certainly churning out windows.

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Meanwhile UK Inc. is still selling off the family silver. Nippon Glass has finally acquired Pilkington, something that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago when Pilkington was at the core of British manufacturing. Mind you, there wasn’t much of that left by then, after Maggie Thatcher decided that you could run Britain like a convenience store. (In case you don’t know the story, her father was a grocer.) Anyway, she favoured a service-based economy. It seemed to escape her notice that, in the first place, someone first had to make the stuff that got sold. Famously, the commercial attaché from the US embassy told the BBC’s political editor of the time: “You can’t make a living opening doors for each other.”

Going back those 20 years, Pilkington was so strong that it would not have been possible for anyone to even open a float plant here let alone buy the business. Now Saint-Gobain and Guardian both make glass in the UK and Pilkington now becomes part of Nippon Glass.

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In the latter days of the Thatcher regime there was a big move to get overseas companies to open plants here. It was called ‘Inward Investment’ and there was much pretense that we were once again manufacturing. Actually it was just politician’s bull. There was a huge unemployment problem and this was seen as a way to solve it. For some reason, nobody pinned them down on the point that these were still service sector jobs. We hired our labour to foreign manufacturers who would take their money home with them and sell many of the products made – cars were a big thing – back into the UK market, thus recycling the money they paid to the workers who built them in the first place.

Still, during the same period, the replacement window industry got going and no doubt took some of the money too. And it is still in there with a chance. According to the reports, construction is holding up, particularly in the commercial sector and the government has great plans to build more houses. There is a bit of an issue about releasing land but, as it is a fact that 60 million people live on only 10 percent of the land area in the UK, there is room to wiggle. On the other hand there’s no wonder it feels so crowded.

The window industry is not quite the last bastion of British manufacturing but with all the planned activity, there is still a fair opportunity to move quite a few frames and sealed units. Houses need windows. Even if the glass is Japanese. -end-

*John Roper is editor for The Installer, The Fabricator, The
Conservatory Installer and Glass Works magazines published in the UK.
His comments reflect opinions from the UK and may not be applicable in
Canada.


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