WILL IT LAST ?
The latest government industrial strategy was launched this week. Let’s hope it lasts. History tells us it won’t. Business is certainly sceptical having made investment decisions in the past based on Whitehall plans which ministers lose interest in after the first sound bites have gone away or a new set of young advisers have come up with a new plan for a new minister.
The other reason past initiatives to boost productivity, wages and the Northern economy have disappeared is because of changes in government. The use of state control during the war led to the Attlee government’s confidence in a nationalisation programme. The Thatcher government reversed this and until 2008 it was generally accepted that capitalism and the private sector would guarantee economic success. All that changed after the crash and ten years on we are reaping the whirlwind of people’s distrust in markets, experts and globalisation.
This Industrial Strategy shows that the Conservatives are now committed to the state having a real role in intervening in the economy. To a considerable extent this has been driven by the success the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has had in identifying people’s distaste for rampant capitalism.
That brings me back to the question businesses are asking, will it last? Possibly if Greg Clarke, one of the abler members of the Cabinet stays in post and if Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t get into Downing Street. His industrial strategy based on nostalgia for the Attlee days would look very different.
The industrial strategy is targeted at the construction industry, life sciences, driverless cars and artificial intelligence. So, there is an emphasis on high tech jobs. The question is will this help with our chronic lack of productivity. Most companies in the North operating at the cutting edge of research are productive but 60% of jobs are in retail and manufacturing which is where the productivity problem really lies. There are 40% more jobs in retail than pharmaceutical. The industrial strategy is too narrow to address this widespread problem.
It is also in danger of being southern focused. Currently only 10% of research spending is in the North. The investment by healthcare giant MSD in Manchester is to be welcomed but confidence in the Northern Powerhouse is shaky at the moment. There is a growing sense outside the Manchester and Liverpool conurbations that the whole project is city based. Of course, one answer to that is for counties like Lancashire and Yorkshire to stop squabbling and get their act together. But the piecemeal approach of governments since 2010 to devolution has not helped. Transport for the North (TfN) is a big step forward but in outlining its new powers recently, the government document contained weasel words about “formally considering” TfN’s statutory transport strategy and TfN’s right to be “consulted” on rail franchises. It does not have the same powers as transport for London.
Finally, there has been a bitter reaction from local government. Whilst mayoral areas will have full control over their local industrial strategies, other councils feel they have been excluded from playing a role at the expense of the Local Economic Partnerships (LEPs). This despite the fact that ministers are calling on LEPs to address problems relating to their leadership, governance and accountability.
Follow me @JimHancockUK