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Will a Royal Commission do what politicians won't for industrial strategy?
A recent report, Industrial Strategy – A Manufacturing Ambition, from MAKE UK calls for a Royal Commission to be established to develop a long-term vision for the industrial sector. But will the report’s recommendations succeed where successive Governments have failed?
The MAKE UK report calls for four policy recommendations.
- Firstly, to establish a Royal Commission on Industrial Strategy to determine a cross party consensus on future priorities.
- Secondly, to re-establish the Industrial Strategy Council as an independent oversight body.
- Thirdly, to have the Cabinet Office be responsible for ensuring government co-ordination and the implementation of industrial policy
- Lastly, that as part of the Royal Commission stakeholders should negotiate and agree institutional reforms to ensure the stability of policy delivery and outcomes.
These recommendations show a path towards long-term thinking which is sorely needed by a sector that over the last 15 years has had to endure the government department responsible for managing industrial policy being renamed and reorganised five times and in those same 15 years has seen 15 Secretaries of State come and go!
The devil, as always, is in the detail and while the report’s recommendations are wholly sensible the concern remains - are they practical? In the first instance the initial task of the Royal Commission would be to gain “cross-party consensus on future priorities and ambitions”, which one year out from a general election seems wishful thinking.
However, if we suspend reality for a moment and concentrate on the issues which the report proposes an industrial strategy must address, then hopes of moving forward in a way to challenge Germany, the USA and China shrink even further.
What the UK needs for a successful industrial strategy can be broadly categorised into five key themes, skills; infrastructure; finance; innovation and the business environment.
However, each of these themes is such a ‘big issue’, requiring the co-ordination of many areas of government as well as the private sector and indeed, in the case of skills, the educational system and immigration policy, that any type of solution seems as far away as ever.
As the report depressingly says, “The number of engineering and manufacturing apprentices has fallen by more than a third since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in 2017, with over £3 billion of unspent levy funds returned to the Treasury.”
So, while the report makes a clear-eyed argument for its recommendations to be adopted there’s no real belief sadly that, due to the landscape in which it lands and the structure and system of government that it must operate within, it will have any greater effect than anything that preceded it.
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