Make UK, which used to be the Engineering Employers Federation, has just released a report calling for a new industrial strategy for the UK. In the face of plans by both the US and EU to drive green technologies with billions of pounds worth of government support, most would agree that Downing Street now has to take the lead.
The problem is that not only does it seem incapable and unwilling to do that, but its chop-and-change policies over the last 13 years have made things far worse. As Make UK points out: “The stop-start style of government policy means more uncertainty for business and makes it difficult for manufacturers to plan ahead effectively. This increases costs for firms and wastes time that could be better spent elsewhere.”
So, for instance, the government scrapped the Industrial Strategy Council in March 2021, replacing it with a new Plan for Growth. This was led by the Treasury and was supposed to be the Government’s central economic plan for recovery and growth post-pandemic. That is until it too was changed in 2022, twice.
It also doesn’t help that in the last 15 years the government department responsible for managing industrial policy has been renamed and reorganised five times and has had 15 different secretaries of state, so one a year for 15 years. We are therefore, I suppose, lucky that in that same time, there have only been seven different growth plans.
And remember that for the last 13 years, the government has been run by the Conservatives, you know, the party that is supposed to be pro-business.
No wonder Make UK wants a Royal Commission to decide on industrial policy, a policy that would garner cross-party support and which could be implemented regardless of who is actually in power. But frankly, that isn’t really necessary. Industry’s wish list is fairly obvious and should be common sense, it is basically much the same as every other significant manufacturing country.
The UK needs a government that cares enough to:
- Provide the skills training necessary for a rapidly changing industry. ust reforming the terrible apprenticeship system would help.
- Ensure better access to finance for industry.
- Deliver much better infrastructure.
- Provide more support for innovation, especially R+D.
- Create a business-friendly environment; not one that increases business rates for factories that spend money on new facilities.
None of this is rocket science, nor is it picking winners. Every other advanced manufacturing country has a strategy.
As industrial leaders now know full well, the UK has lost any chance of being a significant player in the massively expanding car battery industry, it was too slow and did too little too late. The same is now happening before our eyes with green technology; the government’s penny-pinching efforts are minuscule compared to those of our rivals. The coverage given to Virgin’s attempts to launch rockets from Cornwall ended with the company collapsing after one failed launch.
We are already three years into a decade of immense and permanent technological change. But the UK government is struggling to find an industrial tactic, let alone a strategy. Industry knows this, and is more and more willing to say it. Where is the plan to convert to new green technology, new industries, new skills? Answer comes there none.