For the new government in the UK, an industrial strategy represents one of the key institutional vehicles for achieving its main policy goals. These include promoting economic growth, tackling falling productivity, designing research and innovation policies that will enhance the strengths of the UK economy, and ensuring that its leading sectors are globally competitive. These ambitions are combined with its declared commitment to ‘levelling up’ the poorer regions of England with more affluent and productive areas. Delivering on all of these goals presents this new administration with a formidable set of challenges, and the failures of previous attempts at regional policy hang over its current efforts.
For these reasons, the industrial strategy framework which it has inherited from its predecessors is immensely important. It is one of the key institutional vehicles through which it will seek to achieve its ambitions. This was first launched in late 2017, and was based upon a clear recognition of the importance of place in the strategic management of the economy. This emphasis on geography – the distinctiveness of different parts of the country and the unequal distribution of prosperity and opportunity within its constituent parts – marked an important policy shift in a country that has been governed in a highly, and increasingly, centralised fashion for well over a century. The UK-wide strategy was subsequently augmented by a commitment to develop a suite of locally rooted strategies, in England, which were to be agreed between central government and devolved city regions and, in the many areas that lack devolution, Local Economic Partnerships.
How well the new administration tackles the complex challenges associated with significant, and growing, gaps in productivity between the regions of the UK, and how effectively it addresses the challenges facing left-behind places – a focus which requires a better understanding of inequalities within regions – will depend to a considerable extent on the kind of approach to industrial strategy which it takes. Of course, the UK is far from being alone in turning back to industrial policy. A range of international organisations and various governments have recently proclaimed their commitment to ‘place-based’ economic development strategies, and are seeking to make such a focus integral to their national and regional planning systems.
There are many different debates and arguments about how to construct such a strategy, what role the state – nationally and locally – should play within it, and what lessons internationally the UK might best learn. Some experts insist that there is a template for innovation policy which the UK could import from other leading economies.
At the Bennett Institute we tend to take a different approach. We have been working with some of the leading researchers at Cambridge, and engaging key decision-makers across different tiers of government in the UK, to examine in depth some of the major dilemmas and challenges facing the UK’s industrial strategy. Our belief is that this will only succeed if it is based on a deeper understanding of the social and economic needs and strengths of the UK’s various regions, cities and towns, and if it aligns with the dynamics shaping the economy that is likely to emerge in coming decades.
We are therefore delighted to be publishing a brand-new series of papers and reports exploring some of these themes - ‘An Industrial Strategy for Tomorrow’. Each of these offers an in-depth examination of some of the fundamental issues – concerning data, measurement, definition, research policy and strategic ambition – which will determine whether the UK’s industrial strategy achieves its goals. Some of these draw upon evidence gathered internationally, and some offer arguments and proposals that are germane for other countries, as well as the UK.
Our first in the series is ‘Inside the black box of manufacturing’ by Dr. Jostein Hauge and Dr Eoin O’Sullivan.
Our aim in publishing these is to enrich and stimulate thinking and debate about some of the core precepts and goals of the UK’s industrial strategy, and to explore, in particular, the challenges associated with the twin targets of tackling Britain’s productivity puzzle and addressing the obstacles facing its ‘forgotten about’ places.
We hope that you find these informative and stimulating, and welcome any ideas or feedback that you have about the arguments they advance.
Director of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy
University of Cambridge