Two hundred years ago Britain was at its industrial peak, producing nearly 10 per cent of the world’s GDP. Down at the docks you’d see longshoremen loading up ships with British-made goods from dawn till dusk. Those days are finished say some people - but I’m more optimistic.
Last year, the UK’s space sector grew at a whopping 7.5 per cent and added more than £9bn to UK GDP, eye-watering figures in this economic climate. Of this income, a good wedge came from exporting space goods to other countries. This shows that in our modern age, Britain is still good at making things, and making things that the rest of the world wants to buy.
The space sector continues to grow because it plays to our strengths. This country has some of the best and brightest scientists who, with the help of the Technology Strategy Board and their Catapult centres, have been able to capture and commercialise their expertise. The industry has also benefited from buyers in fast-growing developing countries who lack the technical know-how to build satellites themselves.
But we cannot rest on our laurels; we must continue to work hard. We must continue to make sure that our policies are well matched with industry. For example, the UK space sector is dominated by SMEs who can become strangled by regulation. Sadly, right now, if you’re a new space start-up, you need to complete long, technical forms to get a space export license or to bid for funding – these can be extremely time consuming and costly to fill in.
One company, who was interviewed for a new report released by the Science and Technology Committee, said that they had to invest a significant amount of time and money in form-filling to get off the ground. The Government must make it a priority to strip back this legislation.
At the same time the Government must resist a proposal to turn the European Space Agency (ESA) into an EU agency. This would be catastrophic. The ESA is an effective intergovernmental body; it must not be ripped up and restructured. If it works, don’t fix it. Not only is this proposal opposed by the ESA, the Science and Technology Committee and most of the industry, but it’s not at all clear how this would even work: Denmark and Switzerland are members of the ESA but don’t belong to the EU.
UK space is working. The Government just needs to makes sure they keep everything well oiled, and use its purchasing power to drive innovation in the sector.
Whenever cynics say: ‘Britain can’t make things anymore’, I point to our space industry; to the hundreds of SMEs in that sector and say: ‘What about these people?’
I believe the UK space sector will help Britain become a great trading nation once again. UK space really is a winner.
Adam Afriyie is MP for Windsor and Chairman of the Parliamentary Space Committee