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'The industrial strategy should have been far bolder'

Nigel Wilcock
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Last summer 11 government ministers were summoned to give their input into an all-encompassing industrial strategy that was sufficiently important to be named in the title of the government department looking after this.

We heralded this as good news and continue to believe this is the way forward. The policy, then, fits perfectly with an industrial strategy linked to making economic development a statutory function in local government – in fact, how can delivery of such a far-reaching strategy be ensured if this is not the case?

So, with a positive view on the situation, the government has now set out ten headings against which an industrial policy may be structured. As a list of factors, these are as comforting as motherhood and apple pie yet the real issues are in the detail. It is difficult to disagree with any of the points – but we’ve seen them all before.

The industrial strategy diagnoses problems but then prescribes the same solutions as would have been seen in the economic strategies of the regional development agencies at their outset and no doubt in documents before that.

New initiatives such as ‘sector deals’ led by industry are welcome; these initiatives, if they work correctly, will certainly breathe life into industrial digitisation, low emission vehicles, nuclear power, life sciences and creative industries.

Those areas where economic development practitioners in councils will need to get involved are how to get the most from investment in research and development along with encouraging trade and investment and developing skills. But the suggestions in the green paper seem to be, at best, strengthening what is already in place.

Practitioners could be forgiven for being staggered by the inclusion of ‘supporting businesses to start and grow’ in the 10-point plan, since the government has spent the last few years single-handedly dismantling the mechanisms that were in place to achieve this.

However, perhaps most disappointing is the lack of new ideas on addressing regional disparities. The report discusses procurement but tends to gloss over the fact that in many cases a lack of, steady, reliable and on-time commitments in areas such as infrastructure, transport, energy generation, energy transmission would have done much to avoid undermining areas of the UK.

On regional disparities much is made about devolution but we question whether devolution is really being pursued when funding is attached to conditions set in Whitehall and local authorities have suffered disproportionately in the spending cuts.

So, it isn’t that we disagree with the need for a strategy and it isn’t that we have a problem per se with the headings, but we do believe that the strategy could have been far bolder particularly in the area of addressing imbalance.

The Institute of Economic Development has already set about consulting with its own members about what a final industrial strategy should contain. We are committed to work in this area and we will be providing a comprehensive response to the consultation process set out in this green paper.

Nigel Wilcock, executive director, Institute of Economic Development

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