Reading the Industrial Strategy: Building a Britain fit for the future, published this morning, was no mean feat. From tackling the ageing population to transforming cities, its breadth is admirable. Yet, despite its length, it seems to leave no space for substantive mention of the role of local authorities. Although the White Paper sets out a clear ‘partnership with businesses, workers, universities and colleges, local government and the devolved administrations’, emphasis is placed on other bodies, particularly Local Enterprise Partnerships.
The Industrial Strategy’s key points for local government are:
The final chapter focuses on ‘Places’, where promise is made to ‘work in partnership with places to develop Local Industrial Strategies’ by March 2019, so these are clearly intended to be centrepieces of national domestic renewal kicking off as we leave the EU. The paper, however, does not proceed to define exactly what their purpose is, and how they be resourced and supported once agreed. Local Enterprise Partnerships and City region mayors are to be given the leading role in driving the creation of these local industrial strategies (their distinction from Strategic Economic Plans again not quite clear). The Strategy does recognise that LEPs may not be up to the challenge – with the need for ‘influential local leaders, acting as figureheads for their area’s economic success’ identified and a review into their ‘leadership, accountability, governance, economic reporting and geography’ planned for next year. But the role of councils in driving local growth is effectively subsumed into this new business-led architecture.
‘Places’ also outlines two further key policies; to create ‘a new Transforming Cities Fund that will provide £1.7bn for intra-city transport’ and to provide ‘£42m to pilot a Teacher Development Premium’. Again, these policies do not imagine the role of councils to be relevant, and there is rather a city than a rural focus to the plans.
An ageing society
The Industrial Strategy outlines four ‘Grand Challenges’: to put the UK at the forefront of the artificial intelligence and data revolution; to maximise the advantages for UK industry from the global shift to clean growth; to become a world leader in shaping the future of mobility; and to harness the power of innovation to help meet the needs of an ageing society.
For local government the ageing society question is the one of particular interest, and an area it has clear expertise. While the section begins promisingly, recognising that ‘The UK population is ageing’ and this will require concrete action, this promise rather quickly disappears. It makes no substantial reference to the role of the public sector in this area, but rather turns to discuss the demands this population creates for ‘new care technologies, new housing models and innovative saving products for retirement’.
The role of sustainable health and social care provision in meeting the challenge is effectively passed-by with a nod to the upcoming Green Paper. As in the section above, the role of local councils and their funding pressures, thus the entire question of public service productivity, is left for another day.
Education and skills
The Industrial Strategy outlines five foundations of productivity, which are explored through five corresponding chapters – Ideas, People, Infrastructure, Business Environment and Places. The chapter ‘People’ adopts a particular focus on education and skills – ranging from teaching to apprenticeships.
The strategy recognises regional inequalities, but again the role of local governance in addressing it is absent. Instead there are two suggested solutions. One micro intervention in the form of a new £72m Opportunity Areas programme, which will target intensive support through discrete interventions in 12 areas. Secondly, the introduction of Skills Advisory Panels, ‘which will be rolled out shortly, and integrated into Mayoral Combined Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships to inform the analysis that feeds into Local Industrial Strategies’.
So it seems that although the role of skills policies guided locally is accepted, the solution is to channel capacity into LEPs rather than use the expertise of local government, which has been playing an informal role in linking up skills supply to employer demand already.
So, what does the Industrial Strategy mean for local government?
In summary, councils – and their significance in driving growth and productivity – has been passed-by in this White Paper. While the importance of collaboration been various partners is identified from the first page, key parts of the puzzle are thrown aside throughout. With the government facing multi-faceted challenges, this Industrial Strategy feels like a collection of issues and policy interventions rather than something capable of strategically shifting our economy’s capacity to make it fit for purpose for the future. Facing limited options, the government has ultimately failed to turn to its local government allies.