Beyond industrial strategy


As the government moves towards publishing the Industrial Strategy white paper (due by the end of November) they have the findings of the Industrial Strategy Commission to digest, but will its key messages get lost?

Beyond Industrial Strategy

The final report of the Industrial Strategy Commission recognises that the challenges facing the UK economy go far beyond the need for an industrial strategy, even if it is the first for a generation. The independent commission provides a subtle, yet damning indictment of the UK’s approach to stewarding the economy, and makes a number of broad positive suggestions for a way forward. However, given the fundamental nature and the current frame around industrial strategy, the points are likely to be lost. We need to move the messages of the commission beyond industrial strategy if we are to create a more socially just, locally led approach to the economy.

Industrious places and people, not just sectors

The report argues for greater strategic economic management of the economy as a whole, with a call for a strategy which goes far beyond industry as we would understand it in traditional terms. CLES have been calling for a strategy for developing industrious places and people, not just our traditional industrial sectors, seeking a strategy for rebuilding a viable economic base in all places, building on local strengths, local assets and local visions of the future.

Cultural change in policy making

The Commission argues for a need for a cultural change in policymaking but is light on how this might happen beyond a centralised control structure to take the issues more seriously in central government.  Brexit is an opportunity to rethink, but an emerging position and a desperation to secure global trade deals suggest the approach will be to liberalise the economy more, with economic development approaches slotting in behind. The ‘inclusive growth’ agenda may shave off the hardest edges and some places may benefit, but its highly likely these benefits will continue to be outweighed by increasing social disadvantage.

Forging a fairer future

There is, however, opportunity in this rethink to forge a new path, one which recognises the failings of neoliberalism and is less focused on hankering on a return to old models of growth. We need to forge a post-Brexit future which is fairer and more socially and environmentally just, the message of the referendum was exactly this. We need defining leadership more than ever to move us forward and make Britain dynamic and prosperous again. In Theresa May’s Florence speech she stated that ‘if we open our minds to new thinking and new possibilities, we can forge a better, brighter future for all our peoples’. But the divisions of Brexit and the lack of vision in the negotiations suggests we will stumble down the old path rather than forge a new one.

A strategy for developing industrious places and people

Picking out key messages of the commission’s report and reframing them as a strategy for developing industrious places and people can provide us with:

  • A socially just strategy

The commission argues we need to reshape our economies for all places, but fails to acknowledge people. The level of inequality within places is now striking, even the brightest spots of economic growth over the past decade are riven by social challenges. We need to equally consider people within place;

  • A spatially just strategy

The concept of Universal Basic Infrastructure offers a point from which a more interventionist approach to strategic management of the economy can be rooted. Committing government to ensuring everywhere in the UK should be served by high-quality hard infrastructure and have access to high quality human capital-building universal services will be no small challenge, however, if mapped and understood we would have the basics of a redistributive strategy for a genuine rebalancing of the economy;

  • A locally led strategy

The report acknowledges that the local institutional framework which has been weakened by austerity, needs significant reinvestment if it is to play a role in stewarding the growth of all places. Local authorities are alive to this need, but the austerity led narrative has seen the very function of local economic development stripped back in local places, so that in many places there is no function at all. We need strong and effective local co-ordination to draw together and harness the potential of anchor institutions in place and broker relationships across the business and social sectors to ensure intervention delivers genuinely inclusive growth from within, addressing the root causes of social issues and poverty;

  • A locally owned economy

While the Commission’s report makes the point that equitable treatment of communities may at times be justified ahead of economic efficiency, we need to be much clearer about when and how objectives of fairness should predominate. A commitment to providing all places with the required basic infrastructure would be a huge positive step, but should be coupled with policies which drive local benefit from the economy and reduce the extractive nature of investment.