We Need a Road Map to Help us Navigate These Tricky Times

So, after decades of dogged resistance the UK has finally decided to adopt an industrial strategy. More than that, and as if to manifest the fact, the government has created a new department, called Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), headed up by the urbane Greg Clark.

The message is clear - the era of playing laissez-faire economics is over and, in a post-Brexit world, the UK government will become more interventionist.

A Green Paper, Building our Industrial Strategy, was published last month and the consultation period closes soon.

At its heart are ten key pillars – including themes such as skills, infrastructure and, music to my ears, inward investment.

The idea of adopting a plan to shape economic growth has been generally welcomed and businesses are being urged to contribute opinion, prior to the production of a White Paper. There are a few voices of dissent, generally coated in a critique based on concerns about ‘picking winners’, laced with worried references to British Leyland.

To me, these are tired attempts to frighten the horses, propagated by an old guard, who only wish to see government ‘move out of the way’.

As a country, as a planet even, we reaped the seeds of that approach in the crash of 2008 and, today, taxpayers across the world are still picking up the bill.

Let me put it this way:

Can you think of an organisation - from the smallest corner shop to the largest corporation - which would set out without a clear definition of its purpose and some semblance of a plan as to how it proposes to allocate its energy and resources in order to achieve that objective?

No, neither can I. Companies do it, even cities have to produce economic development plans, so why not a country?

It remains a complete mystery to me as to why for so long the UK has resisted this, whilst the entire time losing market share to countries, such as Germany and Singapore, who happily adopt such plans.

Oddly, the resistance to creating an industrial strategy appears to cross political boundaries. The governments of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair both avoided the subject.

Derby felt what it was like to be on the front-line of this hands-off approach in 2011 when the Thameslink contract was awarded to Siemens in Germany.

I sat in the meetings with Vince Cable where we had this out. We asked, why was the UK government happy to export jobs?

I remember meeting with the President of Bombardier, in his Berlin office, where he expressed frustration and confusion as to why the UK government had awarded the multi-billion pound IEP (Inter City Express) deal to Hitachi, when it was illegal for Bombardier to bid for work in Japan.

Isn’t it ironic therefore that one of the first uses of devo-deal cash, remember, that is UK taxpayers’ cash, is a shameful decision by Liverpool City Region to buy £460m of trains from that bastion of fair trade and transparency, Switzerland, when they could be built by Bombardier here in Derby?

Can you imagine the brouhaha if Derby dared do that to Liverpool?

Don’t get me wrong, an industrial strategy is not a script for protectionism. Far from it, a healthy plan will look out and be globally focused. However, it will have a view on growth sectors, how we might invest in education and training required for the future and, yes, how we propose to procure.

Greg Clark’s previous incarnation was in DCLG, where he earned a reputation for his genuine interest in cities and their economies. We presented Derby’s masterplan to him at MIPIM UK when he took the virtual reality tour of our key sites.

Each year, the respected think-tank, Centre for Cities, produces its seminal Cities Outlook, a competitive scorecard of city performance.

The 2017 edition inevitably looks at the impact of Brexit on cities and argues that the industrial strategy needs to be place-based.

In its analysis of the export fingerprint of UK cities, the report is able to isolate city reliance on EU and wider world markets.

The picture is mixed – nearly half of exports go to the EU, with some cities having little global footprint, therefore being exposed to the potential impact of Brexit.

The report picks out Derby for special mention. Derby tops the table with 75% of our exports going beyond the EU, in particular to markets in North America and the Far East.

The world trade environment is already changing and Brexit will make this change even greater in the UK.

The new UK industrial strategy must provide a road map to help us navigate these challenging times.