I was devastated, but perhaps not really surprised, to hear of the closure of Dundee’s largest industrial employment base – Michelin – a couple of weeks ago. Last month I wrote about how the 2008 financial crash signalled just how broken our economy is. The Michelin closure is perhaps the most recent example, close to home, of the crumbling industrial economy of the last century: this old economy is coming to an end.
But where things crumble, there are cracks. And where there are cracks, the light can get in. That is not to say that the Michelin closure is not a disaster for the workers, and for the city of Dundee and wider area. However, what it does show us where there might be opportunities for light to get in, so we can get ahead of and in the new economy. And we have to do this sooner rather than later. It is not good enough to just tweak around the edges of the status quo, hoping that this will create the social and economic transformations we need to see.
We need a strategic reconfiguring of the economy. This new economy must not be based on exploitative relationships between workers and elites, resources and profit. Rather, we have the opportunity to create, in Dundee, the beginnings of an economy that values the contributions all people make to society. And this new economy can, and must, be a zero carbon economy.
There are clear first-mover, or at least early-mover advantages to this approach: by being at the forefront of new opportunities, identifying and claiming a leading place in the new economy, the city, its workers and citizens will reap greater benefits in the short and longer terms.
Dundee did not benefit as it should have done (and as Aberdeen did) from the north sea oil and gas boom. There was some rig building and maintenance, but the vast majority of the economic growth went further north to Aberdeen. Not only was the potential of economic growth not realised for Dundee, but it also meant an overheated economy in Aberdeen, which served to exacerbate inequality in the North East.
So, to deal with both the immediate issue of job losses and industrial decline and the wider point of the more equitable distribution of economic growth, we must make sure Dundee benefits from the offshore renewables boom. We need a just transition across and between a range of skills and sectors.
As wind power becomes more mature and cheaper than even installed fossil fuels, we must ensure we have a competitive manufacturing and maintenance facility for the turbines and associated systems and processes. This will mean creating greater security for the workers at BiFab too, expanding capacity for the rest of the country. Making links and connections across the industrial landscape is a crucial part of just transition success.
We can not afford to lag behind on these opportunities: we should be leading on creating this element of a new, sustainable and clean economy, with well-paid, secure jobs for skilled professionals.
But we also need to be ahead of the world on the application of data and creating the code we need for the new economy. Automation and the technological transformation we know is happening around us must be harnessed in positive and productive ways that benefit communities and society.
There are huge skills shortages in data science and coding, and we should be transitioning our economy and our workers into these sectors. We know that these, too, will be decent jobs for the future. And that’s before we get to advanced manufacturing, the possibilities in 3D printing, and the circular economy.
A just transition for our economy is the only way, as I see it, to create not only the secure, well paid jobs we need, but also deliver the industrial transformation that we require if we are to have a sustainable future. And it has to go hand in hand with a process of democratisation. Decentralised economic decision-making should be combined with industrial renewal.
With such an economic and social transformation, both grounded in justice, that sees power transferred from multinationals to workers and communities, we should not see the likes of Dundee’s Michelin closure again.