Every so often you happen across an old project or scheme that had some success but then later disappeared. A few such ideas might still even have something helpful to offer us now.
Part 4: Sword into ploughshares at Lucas
In 1976, Britain’s industrial decline was going at full pelt. Competition from the European Community, which Britain had joined in 1972, was exposing the weaknesses of the UK’s complacent manufacturers. Lucas plc, a manufacturer of defence and automotive kit, was no exception. Management were planning to respond to industrial action and declining profits with a round of lay-offs.
It was at this point that a group of workers produced a far more interesting idea. The Alternative Corporate Plan, as they called it, was a swords-into-ploughshares proposal for the future of Lucas.
It proposed a range of new products that Lucas could be making, using its engineering expertise to tackle big societal problems. Some of these were close to Lucas’s traditional markets, like safer braking systems for cars and buses. Others were more imaginative: hybrid cars, medical devices and new forms of public transport. They included detailed plans for how to organise production along decentralised lines, how to train staff and how to attack new markets. And in the course of developing the plan, workers built links with researchers, community technology groups and activists, building something that’s been described as an early version of today’s maker movement.
The plan was praised by Tony Benn, who became Secretary of State for Industry later that year. But it was rejected by Lucas and in the end was not implemented. It’s easy to characterise it as just another spasm of Britain’s industrial collapse. But many of the principles that seemed eccentric in 1974 – less hierarchical work teams, developing green technologies, trying to shift away from defence contracts to more sustainable civilian work – became received wisdom in the manufacturing sector in the decades that followed.