For many businesses, the term “industrial strategy” will conjure memories of a series of short-lived and impractical schemes that successive governments wheeled out as a means of guiding the development of the UK economy. But experience has shown that piecemeal and on-the-fly planning by Whitehall doesn’t have the meaningful or enduring impact that is needed for real economic success.
Now, the government must really listen to what business communities are telling them is needed. Guided by a small number of clear and ambitious missions, it must create the conditions for lasting growth that will underpin the economy through the Brexit transition and beyond. The formation of this strategy comes at a particularly crucial time, as the UK considers what kind of country it wants to be post-Brexit, and works to forge new trading relationships with European and other markets. But the outcome of the much-hyped Brexit trade negotiations will be worth little if the fundamentals aren’t right at home.
Civic-minded businesses in every corner of the UK recognise that people are their most important resource, but they are increasingly reporting difficulties recruiting the skills they need. Plugging the skills gap and ensuring that firms have access to a pipeline of trained and work-ready staff will boost productivity and growth potential in local economies everywhere. The UK’s infrastructure, both physical and digital, needs major investment to prevent us from lagging behind our competitors. For too long we’ve been underinvesting in important projects, or delaying them altogether – leaving our transport system operating at over-capacity and our digital framework far behind where a modern economy should be, with businesses across the country still reporting unreliable internet connections and patchy mobile coverage.
The government must also take action on the burden of up front costs hammering businesses, including business rates, insurance premium tax, the Apprenticeship Levy and pensions auto-enrolment. These costs hit firms regardless of their economic conditions, diverting cash that might otherwise be used to grow the business.
For the UK to succeed beyond Brexit we must also turn around our current account deficit and improve our trade performance. A small number of industries, such as manufacturing, account for a disproportionate share of the UK’s exports, and while we must support these sectors, we also need to encourage new ones to trade with the world. Central to this strategy for economic development, must be a focus on place and geography – not repeating the mistakes of the past where support for specific sectors was given precedence, with little regard for geography.
Instead, we must unlock the potential of place, sweeping away the barriers to local growth and addressing local priorities which, aggregated, will create real change across the country. Chambers of commerce, and the communities of civic businesses they represent, understand the importance of building on the existing competitive advantages of our cities, towns and counties.
We’re calling on the government to ensure meaningful business input into local economic strategy and for a simplified, more transparent and broader public sector procurement process, to help facilitate this aim. It’s imperative that Brexit isn’t allowed to become a distraction from all the issues which need attention at home. Instead, this industrial strategy must sit at the centre of a strong and ambitious domestic policy agenda to give our dynamic firms a solid foundation to get on and grow.