The Industrial Strategy launched by the Prime Minister last week makes interesting reading. Regular followers will have already seen our blogs on post-Brexit Britain and the enduring productivity puzzle, two topics which are tied up in the bundle of Theresa May’s Plan for Britain, and it’s encouraging to finally see a bit of detail from a leader who has so far said very little about so much that concerns us.
The optimists among you may even be feeling hopeful at the prospect of a renewed focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) and technical skills, while the more cynical are likely experiencing a strong sense of déjà vu as the same old platitudes about long-term thinking and ‘backing Britain’ are trotted out. So what will this Industrial Strategy Green Paper and the freshly monikered Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy really mean for the manufacturing sector?
Firstly, as a Green Paper, it has a particular role, which could amount to significant change or, frankly, nothing much at all. The Cambridge English Dictionary definition of a Green Paper is “a document published by a government containing information about a possible new law or changes to an existing law, in order to start a public discussion.” It details specific issues and then points out possible courses of action in terms of policy and legislation. However it doesn’t actually contain any commitment to action, although it is often the first step towards changing the law.
The Industrial Strategy certainly doesn’t shy away from the myriad of problems facing the manufacturing sector. It highlights the stunning inequality in this country: the gaping gulf between the best and worst performers, whether in productivity, skills, employment or growth, and sets out a “vision to get all parts of the country firing on all cylinders”. However, the possible solutions it sets out via its 10 pillars are so wide-ranging that it makes me wonder at the likelihood of even scratching the surface.
The other troubling aspect of the issue is that it will take decades to bring about the kind of change that is required. Yes, there are some quick fixes which can be achieved before the next General Election in 2020, but to really turn the tanker around a truly long-term, cross-party approach is essential. It will also require lasting commitment and a joined-up mindset from industry, NGOs, the education sector and others to make it happen.
Just by reading the list of 10 pillars which will “drive the Industrial Strategy”, the mind begins to boggle: “science, research & innovation; skills; infrastructure; business growth & investment; procurement; trade & investment; affordable energy; sectoral policies; driving growth across the whole country; and creating the right institutions to bring together sectors and places.”
Each one of these requires a huge amount of work, so it will be very interesting to see how the Government prioritises them in its legislative and investment plans. One aspect of the Green Paper which I am encouraged by is the commitment to drawing on past experience and looking at other countries to learn lessons and find inspiration. Given that we lag behind so many other nations when it comes to productivity, energy efficiency, sustainability and education, there surely must be much we can learn from the experience of others.
There is a lot riding on this Industrial Strategy, both for the Government and for us. The Tory party and Theresa May have to make a success of Brexit; if they don’t, the political wilderness beckons. If they don’t, the country risks a catastrophic long-term economic decline and marginalisation on the world stage which will affect every one of us.
For that reason, I urge you to read and respond to the Green Paper and ensure that the voice of the manufacturing sector is heard loud and clear by the Government as it starts to shape its policies and any potential legislation. You can submit your views via email to [email protected] or via the online survey at https://beisgovuk.citizenspace.com/strategy/industrial-strategy. The deadline for submissions is 17th April 2017.