Teesside Labour MPs have sent a joint letter to Northern Powerhouse Minister James Wharton MP to urge Business Secretary Sajid Javid to support a Teesside-headquartered initiative to boost British industry’s international competitiveness.
The Materials Catapult has been proposed by the internationally renowned Materials Processing Institute based in Redcar, and also TWI, Britain’s largest research and technology organisation, which would utilise its Middlesbrough technology centre.
Labour’s Tees MPs have argued strongly to ministers in the House of Commons that the proposal would focus on research to increase productivity and innovation in the UK’s vital materials sector which covers metals from steel to aluminium, titanium and alloys, and extends to industries like ceramics, brick, glass, plastics and beyond.
In a government U-turn on a previous refusal to prioritise steel innovation following strong representations by the industry partners and local Labour MPs, the Business Secretary wrote to Anna Turley MP and Andy McDonald MP to promise MPI and TWI would play an “important role” in solutions proposed by the Steel Council on “what capabilities the sector is likely to need to place it on a sustainable footing for the future”.
However, Sajid Javid also claimed Innovate UK has concluded there is “not a clear case for Government investment” at this time to create a catapult for the broader materials sector which is worth £200 billion to the UK economy every year and consists of over 30,000 companies employing over 485,000 people in this country.
Pressed on his support for the proposal by Tom Blenkinsop MP in a House of Commons debate on the Heseltine Report last month, James Wharton promised that he would ask the Business Secretary to look again at the government’s rejection of the Materials Catapult. He said:
“[D]espite that having been the initial decision and recommendation by officials, it is my intention to ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to look personally at that and to ask officials whether improvements or changes could be made that would enable that to be delivered …. I am happy to give a commitment to ask for that work to be undertaken, and I will do so following the debate this evening.”
Writing “in the spirit of cooperation on behalf of Teesside and industry”, the five local MPs have asked Mr Wharton to ensure a positive outcome for the proposal and to join them meeting with ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Responding to the Business Secretary’s reply, the letter says: “As Teesside MPs, we simply do not understand how ministers and civil servants have come to a judgement that both undermines the government’s claimed objectives for the “Northern Powerhouse” and the Heseltine Report, and which finds itself significantly at odds with business leaders, industry academics and SMEs.”
It goes on to describe the Materials Catapult as “precisely the sort of industry-aligned, commercial approach that is required to ensure the success of Britain’s vitally important materials industry, enhanced by government intervention to tackle market failure.”
The Materials Catapult proposal seeks to correct the absence of materials from the government’s catapult network and has backing from the CBI, Federation of Small Businesses and UK Steel as well as world class research institutions including London, Cambridge and Teesside universities, and Manchester’s Royce Institute.
The “Catapult Network” is a UK government funded innovation initiative to help British businesses maintain their competitive position in world markets, grow sectors and explore emerging markets.
The concept grew out of the Technology Strategy Board (now called Innovate UK) set up by the Labour Government from 2004-2007 to encourage business investment in technology and innovation.
The 2013 Tees Valley City Deal included a request for the creation of such an innovation and commercialisation hub.