British fireworks industry fizzles out

Mark Rowe
Sunday 01 November 1998 00:02 GMT

THURSDAY'S celebration of the foiling of Guy Fawkes's attempt to blow up Parliament will barely be British this year. The fireworks industry once provided manufacturing jobs for thousands in the UK, but now directly employs just 30 people.

The vast majority of rockets, roman candles and Catherine-wheels are made abroad, mostly in China. Only one British firm continues to manufacture fireworks for sale in this country. There is concern that the increasing numbers of foreign fireworks flooding the UK are compromising safety standards.

The remaining British fireworks manufacturers blame government legislation and cheap labour costs in the Far East for the demise of their domestic competitors. Tighter age restrictions on sales and the deregulation of the fireworks market in 1995, which removed the need for a specialist licence to import fireworks, have increased pressure on a fragile business.

"It's a tragedy that there are no other British firms," said the Rev Ronald Lancaster, the managing director of Cambridgeshire-based Kimbolton Fireworks, a family business which employs 30. "But Chinese fireworks are easily available and cheaper than we could ever make them. The market has been flooded."

Yet despite the slump in UK fireworks production, sales remain buoyant, with an estimated 130 million fireworks, worth around pounds 50m, sold last year.

Kimbolton Fireworks can no longer make shop fireworks profitably and instead concentrates on displays, many of which are high-level affairs. It was responsible for the British extravaganza that accompanied the handover of Hong Kong to China last year. The company stands alone in British fireworks manufacturing after the sale this year of Standard Fireworks, the oldest and biggest maker of fireworks in Britain, to a Hong Kong-based company. Although Standard fireworks are still sold in shops here, they are no longer made in the UK, but imported from China. The Huddersfield company was founded more than a century ago and was for a long time associated with the Greenhalgh family, which sold out to Scottish Heritable Trust in 1986.

While a handful of small-scale operations are making fireworks for use by theatres and television productions, Kimbolton is the only firm still making fireworks for outside displays.

In the industry's heyday of the late 1960s, Britain had 11 large-scale family manufacturers, with Standard Fireworks employing 600 people. Other classic names of the past include Brock's, bought by Standard in 1987, and Paynes, which now specialises in fireworks displays.

John Woodhead of the British Pyrotechnics Association said the nature of the fireworks industry meant it was partly responsible for its own downfall.

"The explosive nature of the product means you can't use sophisticated machinery and it's a very hands-on job," he said. "You need lots of people and if you look at wage levels in China and the UK, it's obviously cheaper to make things over there."

A British standard applies to imported fireworks, but the industry has safety concerns about the quality of cheap black-market imports.

Noel Tobin, director of the National Campaign for Fireworks Safety, said: "Because of deregulation, importers can just call these things toys. Deregulation and imports have led to a dilution of safety standards.

"We are in possibly the most dangerous fireworks situation we have ever known. The millennium is coming up and things are going to get worse. Anybody who wants to make a quick buck will buy a lot of fireworks and put on a display."

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