UK government accused of complacency over motorsports industry

The British government was accused today of "complacency" over Britain's world-leading motorsports industry and warned that other countries are lining up to poach the high-tech work away from the UK.

The industry was hailed by the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee as one of the "crown jewels of UK manufacturing", with 4,500 small businesses centred around Silverstone supporting 38,500 jobs and generating annual sales of more than £6 billion - of which 60 per cent are exports.

But the cross-party committee said ministers had sidelined the industry, treating it as a niche market in the broader automotive sector.

In a report published today, the MPs urged Lord Mandelson's Business Department to establish a specialist policy team with responsibility for the motorsport industry. And the committee voiced concern over motorsports engineering courses offered in British universities, highlighting a tendency for students to be taught motorsports management rather than more rigorous technical engineering material.

Today's report - entitled Full Speed Ahead - quoted the Motorsports Industry Association as saying: "Many countries envy the success of (the UK's) high value-added industry cluster and have active government programmes to try and capture a share - often initiated by investment in hosting an F1 race.

"Such moves represent a genuine and constant threat to the leadership position enjoyed by the UK - an economic asset which requires less complacency and better awareness and active appreciation from government."

The committee members said they were "struck by the lack of understanding and effective engagement by government", adding: "The industry repeatedly told us the government was complacent about UK leadership in this sector."

The British Grand Prix at Silverstone is one of only two races in the Formula One calendar not to enjoy financial support from the host government, noted the report.

Committee chairman Peter Luff said: "Motorsport is an industry of national importance, and the government needs to recognise this. We find it difficult to imagine any other country sidelining such an important industry. The government needs to address this problem if the UK is to maintain this pre-eminent international industry and help it flourish."

The committee hailed the government's decision to set up centres of excellence to develop new technologies for high-tech industries like motorsports and aerospace. But it highlighted "an episode of worrying mismanagement" by government in the establishment of a centre at Bristol University to lead research into composite materials of the kind used in advanced aircraft and high-performance cars.

The competitive bidding process for the National Composites Centre was "shrouded in mystery", with several key players not consulted, said the report. Bidders were given unclear specifications and asked to provide additional information at extremely short notice.

"The government needs to learn lessons from this failure to ensure that any future projects, including the Aerospace Research Institute which we believe should be established, are competently and professionally managed," said Mr Luff.

Today's report also looked at the aerospace industry, which it said was "much more robustly supported" by the government. But the committee warned that even this support was less generous than that provided by some of the UK's competitors.

"The aerospace industry is extremely competitive and other governments are not afraid to spend significant sums of money supporting their home-grown industry," said Mr Luff. "The UK government needs to ensure that our aerospace companies are able to compete on an equal footing with foreign companies."

The MPs said they were "puzzled" by the environmentally unfriendly image held by many of the public of both the aerospace and motorsports industries. Stressing the work both sectors have done to reduce their carbon emissions, the committee blamed the "Top Gear effect" which caused people to associate high-performance cars and planes with "reckless petrol-heads" personified by Jeremy Clarkson.

A spokesman for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills said: "The government continues to recognise the contribution of motorsport to the economy and its important role in developing new technologies that crossover into other industries including aerospace, as recognised by the Committee.

"That's why the government has funded the Motorsport Development UK programme with £11.5 million of support between 2004 and 2009 and why Ministers have acted to secure F1 in the UK. An industry that supports 4,500 firms employing 38,500 people with an annual turnover of £6 billion and exports worth £3.6 billion is integral to the wider automotive industry.

"We are keen for the motorsport industry to be involved in the work of the Automotive Council and we continue to believe that this is the best way for government to engage with the motorsport industry as a whole." He said the department would respond to the committee "in due course".

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