Upstaged by a royal engagement, the industrial strategy white paper, ‘Building a Britain fit for the future’, made an inauspicious debut. It deserved more attention than it got.
There’s wide agreement that a robust industrial strategy is necessary, overdue and a corrective to the short-termism that has blighted governments of different political stripes for decades. It has taken time for the Conservatives to adopt a more hands-on approach, with three main aims:
- To help create a more highly-skilled and better-paid workforce.
- To nurture the right conditions for successful businesses to be created and then thrive.
- To identify the industries of greatest strategic value to the economy, and facilitate a partnership between them and the government.
Labelled variously as a “big first step” (Institute of Directors) and the “beginning of a strategic race” (CBI), it has been commended for its appraisal of the issues, but criticised for its lack of comprehensive solutions. The Industrial Strategy Commission’s (ISC) earlier recommendations have largely been heeded, if watered down significantly. For example, the newly created Industrial Strategy Council is the BEIS version of the Commission’s Office for Strategic Economic Management. CBI Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn praised the move, but echoed ISC concerns over the Council lacking the “teeth of statutory powers.”
The biggest takeaways for the built environment perhaps come in the form of a “sector deal” for the construction industry and a greater financial commitment to infrastructure, skills, and training. But many of the announcements are what Vince Cable (in charge of the previous Coalition’s draft) has called “rebranding”, as commitments to technical education are repeated and the National Productivity Investment Fund is topped up.
Some might say that the Industrial Strategy is reminiscent of the budget, in that it shows the government is listening and acknowledging the problems facing the UK’s economy… but that fixing them is a different matter. Even the more Conservative-supporting press seems to have been less than enthusiastic in its response . There is no escaping the reality that the current government and those that follow it will have to act, as well as diagnose, if the UK is not to continue to fall behind its competitors.