While the Budget is generally seen as the Government’s foremost economic announcement of the year, a new candidate entered this week in the form of the Industrial Strategy White Paper, titled ‘Building a Britain Fit for the Future’. It had been billed as a long-term plan to help crack the UK’s productivity problem, deliver increased growth across the country and help tackle underlying problems such as the low levels of R&D investment. Does it deliver?
That there is an industrial approach at all is important. The UK has had a chequered experience of industrial strategy with piecemeal measures and short-term decisions. The last Business Secretary Sajid Javid, studiously avoided the term. But, a long-term plan mitigating against the change of Ministers and political cycles to enable business to invest is much needed. The recognition of the Government’s roles of ‘co-ordination’, ‘strategic investment’ and ‘pooling risk’ is also welcome.
The Industrial Strategy lays out that the goal is not simply about fixing the foundations, but planning for a rapidly changing future to meet the ‘Four Grand Challenges’ – AI and data, mobility (transport), clean growth and supporting the needs of an ageing society. Policies are grouped under ‘Five Foundations’. The clear focus on boosting innovation has been particularly welcomed given the UK’s low levels of R&D investment. Delivering infrastructure features strongly, including building HS2. Some sectors will receive dedicated attention in ‘sector deals’, with more set for 2018.
However, the Industrial Strategy still feels like another Green Paper and series of well-intentioned measures but not a comprehensive way forward with clear actions, milestones and responsibilities and co-ordination of who does what nationally, regionally and locally. Indeed, the Strategy outlines many areas where policy is still to be worked out.
The importance of co-ordination should not be understated as the unveiling of the Industrial Strategy itself showed. While Business Secretary Greg Clark should have been taking credit for a programme that aims for a marriage between business and government in a long-term partnership, some other engagement announced on the same day seems to have stolen the headlines.