Industrial Strategy – Is It More Than a PR Document?

Yesterday the Government published their “Industrial Strategy” – subtitled “Building a Britain fit for the future”. This is a “White Paper” that lays out how the Government plans to tackle the issues identified in a previous “Green Paper”. Does it have any relevance to investors views of the prospects for UK companies and the economy as a whole? I will try to answer that question later.

It certainly reads positively with glowing comments on the history of innovation in the UK, the great business environment, record levels of employment, vibrant culture, best universities in the world…….I could go on but you can read the whole 255 page document if you want more of the same.

But there are four “grand challenges” it focuses upon as key themes in improving our competitiveness and productivity:

  • Artificial intelligence and big data.
  • Clean growth.
  • The future of mobility.
  • Meeting the needs of an ageing population.

These will be supported by investment via an “Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund” (Government funding but matched by commercial investment), plus increasing R&D tax credits and putting more money into R&D investment. Education in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) will be enhanced with the establishment of a technical education system and a National Retraining Scheme. This is surely all sound (speaking as an engineer by education) because it is surely clear that poor productivity in the UK is the result of poor education and skills compounded by cultural biases against technology.

There is a big emphasis on improving productivity in this document which is definitely to be applauded. We cannot grow the economy by simply opening more cafés and gastro pubs.

As regards infrastructure there is money to support 5G and fibre optic networks, and support for electric vehicles. In addition the Government expects self-driving cars to be on our roads by 2021 – that’s only four years away. I am sceptical of what might happen when my top of the range SATNAV (not that inbuilt in the car which is hopeless) managed to get me lost in London only yesterday. As John Thornhill said in an interesting article in the FT today that “technology promises to free us from the human touch that caused millions of deaths [on the roads worldwide], but then quoted one tech executive as saying “the assumption that you can go from 1m road deaths to zero is very naive”.

There is also a commitment to “transform construction techniques” where old fashioned methods of house building, which are hopelessly labour intensive, remain in use. In another sector they will improve teaching of computer science and invest £20m in a new “Institute of Coding”, presumably to teach computer programming. I have to advise them as a former programmer that coding is an inefficient way of developing applications and teaching folks how to do it rather than implement systems in other ways is a retrograde step. This is surely a case of the Government fighting the new economic wars with old tactics.

Likewise a commitment to invest in AI, when it’s been around for many years but has yet to revolutionise the world, could be seen as unreal when it is unclear how that will have a big impact. AI is a myriad of technologies that might have impacts in many cumulative minor ways, but it’s the detail that matters.

In many ways this document is big on vision, but short on specifics (other than the few things I have mentioned above). It will take consistent follow through to make a concrete success of these policies – not something our existing political system is best designed to achieve.

So my conclusion is that it is a valiant attempt to guide the UK economy in the right future direction. Whether it will have a major impact or success remains to be seen. It may have little impact on the decisions by UK companies, who are always wary of Government hand-outs or policy changes.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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