Lawrence Conway, Institute of Economic Development (IED) board member and Chief Executive of South Lakeland District Council, shares his views on the UK Industrial Strategy and asks if it is fit for the future
I must admit I was in shock for a short time after the EU referendum vote and its outcome of a decision to leave the EU. The shock was not about the outcome per se, as there would always be opportunities inside or outside Europe.
I had always believed that the EU market was the UK’s natural home market. It wasn’t about integration, trade deals and tariffs; it was a vital extension to our island economy plugging us into an economic marketplace of 511 million people with a GDP of $18 trillion on our doorstep.
Maintaining links to the EU economy is necessary for our nation’s ambitious growth plans based on a future knowledge and technology-based economy. We would be ready for that future, strategy or no strategy.
We have survived for decades without any real joined-up economic strategy and policies and we still came out high on the list of the world’s best performing national economies. This is a testament to our homegrown innovation and entrepreneurial enterprise and spirit and our ability to compete in world markets.
Our response to this historic event has been a flurry of activity and the publishing of the UK Industrial Strategy and its five pillars to success. The document has had relatively positive reviews. Not for a nailed down direction of travel or a positive vision of the UK’s economy post-Brexit, but rather for the fact that at least we now have one irrespective of the finer details yet to be hammered out. For this, at least, I am grateful.
A strategy, implemented with commitment, will bring focus, direction and confidence to any economy. If we look at the very best the world has to offer – their national economic strategies, their national infrastructure plans, their nations skills development, their eye on the future, their ability to look after their citizens – we have a number of countries we can look to for intel: Germany, China etc. They all set out a future and stick to a plan.
I have not included the US just yet, as I think we need to give them a little more time to see how their latest initiatives come to fruition. Not just for their own economy, but for the rest of the world too. Who does now lead the world in global issues such as climate change, growth and technology?
Our very own UK Industrial Strategy is clearly necessary to articulate a future narrative and vision to galvanise and focus the application of our abilities and potential. Without such a strategy, to include strong investment in infrastructure, skills and knowledge base and devolved spending powers and public-sector infrastructure decision- making processes to focus investment on where it is needed, we are at risk of floundering in our resolve, our direction and our use of resources as a nation. A Northern Powerhouse or Midlands engine would ultimately be consigned to the fate of The Northern Way and many others before them.
To deliver on such a strategy will also require an architecture beneath to ensure we deliver on the promises and actions we set out with. That architecture, or structure, must be relevant and agile. It must match how business works in a place – be that nationally, regionally or locally.
We must recognise that it is both the horizontal and vertical elements of business and community that make a place successful. Geography, local economic structures, clusters and linkages, culture, environment and administration are all key factors in ensuring that we get the right structure to deliver the strategy. True functioning economic areas at the local, sub-regional and sub-national.
I think it’s fair to say right now we have a bit of a mixed bag regards structure and governance.
For some, London, Manchester, the five elements above already exist in abundance, and much progress has been made in overcoming historical rivalries. For many others, this is not the case. The driver must be economic success, not ease of use for Whitehall and government.
It is also crucial that national strategies are linked together. Decent jobs, skills and housing generally lead to a healthier society. I am sure the departments of Brexit, Health, Education and Business meet regularly to bring their key ambitions and policies into alignment.
I know from a private sector viewpoint, as that is where I spent my formative years, the outlook and success criteria are very different from those within the public sector where I now happily reside. But the end game is the same.
Providing confidence and leadership, enhancing social responsibility and an environment where everyone has a chance to make the best of their circumstances, is the job of us all. It is our collaborative task and challenge to ensure we achieve this ambition for our communities whatever the future may bring.
Institute of Economic Development (IED) board member
District Councils’ Network economic growth workstream lead
Chief Executive of South Lakeland District Council
Tel: +44(0)1925 730 484
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