Old news; new possibility?

2 min read

The UK’s industrial policy has been of topical interest lately. The UK has been engaged in an analysis of its relative economic decline, with a focus on manufacturing, since the late 19th century.

So cue the same observations and analyses of manufacturing that have been aired many times previously: investment, skills, innovation. The lack of, in each case. Add ‘infrastructure’ to today’s broader discussions (roads, rail, internet) – industrial policy is today not only about manufacturing but business in general, although our focus is manufacturing.

For any strategy to be effective, short-term political slogans ought to be avoided – ‘March of the Makers’ comes to mind – and the boring, unglamorous, daily slog of doing something over many years embraced, like building what has become the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, originally founded on a few individuals’ and companies’ efforts, and EU funding (www.machinery.co.uk/47008).

It is much as we said back in 2012, when talk of rebalancing the economy had become fashionable (www.machinery.co.uk/47006). Following the government’s publishing of a sectoral analysis and strategy, we wrote: “With serious action now prompted – by the financial crash – and likely to be sustained, we can, at last, Machinery hopes, switch our gaze to the UK [away from admiring other countries’ efforts] and focus on building our own particular manufacturing landscape. The result will not be a copy-cat of any single country’s approach, while with Dr [Vince] Cable [Business Secretary at the time] suggesting a 20-year horizon in his announcement, change may appear frustratingly slow.”

And that’s the crux; it takes time – longer than any single, five-year (as it now is) Parliament. EEF notes just this in its 'Manufacturing Ambitions' document (https://is.gd/najiye) published in October and suggests adopting the EU’s Horizon 2020 approach of a seven-year programme – still too short, according to Vince Cable.

Of course, overlaid on any industrial strategy, today we are wrestling with exit from the EU. Ironic that the EEF should point to Horizon and that Catapults have drawn on EU funds during their creation, but somewhat less amusing is the fact that any industrial strategy must support innovation; UK academic efforts here are frequently intertwined with those of our European partners. But is there also new opportunity?

Maybe we are in a position to frame an industrial strategy more precisely for UK needs outside the EU (still two years-plus away, though). For the last 40-odd years, any strategy may have been ‘constrained’ by EEC/EU rules. So along with the negatives, which there clearly are, due regard should be given to some positives. The Centre for Policy Studies is suggesting Free Ports, for example, saying these could boost manufacturing (see https://is.gd/pinono).

This article was originally published in the December issue of Machinery magazine.