20 Jan 2017

Edward Jones
Bartlett School of Planning, University College London, UK


Ed Jones manages the RSA’s Brexit and Industrial Strategy site http://brexit.regionalstudies.org/  and is keen to hear from researchers and policymakers working on issues related to Brexit, Industrial Strategy and Regional Policy.


Theresa May’s ‘new industrial strategy’ – wait and see?

In the midst of all the uncertainties and political jostling which followed the Brexit vote a new commitment to industrial strategy was born. Less than a month after the referendum, Theresa May launched her bid to become Prime Minister with the promise of a ‘proper industrial strategy to get the whole economy firing’, which will deliver strong growth ‘in all parts of the country’.[1] On assuming office, May rebranded and refocused the Department of Energy and Climate Change to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, a move which signals that climate change will be taking a back seat to the new imperative of developing and delivering an industrial strategy. A new cabinet committee has been set up to steer the process, tasked with ‘promoting a diversity of industrial sectors and ensuring the benefits of growth are shared across cities and regions up and down the country’.[2] But as the febrile atmosphere of last summer ebbed away, little flesh has been put onto the bones of these initial announcements.
Greg Clark, the Secretary of State responsible for the new industrial strategy, gave a few hints in his autumn speech to the Conservative Party Conference. The strategy will recognise that ‘the needs of Cornwall are different from those of Birmingham’, and promises ‘upgrades’ in infrastructure, education and training, and in the development and regeneration of Britain’s towns and cities.[3] May’s further announcements cemented the link between industrial strategy and the need to enable growth nationwide, rather than in a select few cities and regions. She promised to create the conditions where ‘winners’ can emerge ‘across all sectors, in all parts of the country and for the benefit of all.’ The government will ‘proactively support’ the ‘industries of the future’ as well as those where the UK enjoys a competitive advantage.[4] R&D will be boosted, innovative firms will be rewarded through the tax system, and start-ups will be transformed into successful scale-ups.[5]
So, to sum up, the new industrial strategy will foster growth in every part of the country, with the government providing proactive support to an as yet undefined set of industries through measures including improved education, infrastructure, and support for scale-ups. So far so vague. The coming weeks and months will hopefully bring greater clarity on the nature of May’s proposals, articulating differences with the approaches taken by the Cameron administrations, and allowing the likely winners and losers of May’s strategy to be identified. What is clear is that the impetus for (and legitimacy of) May’s industrial strategy lies in a general discontent that economic opportunity and the fruits of prosperity are enjoyed by the usual suspects – the parts of the country that have weathered the storms of deindustrialisation, financial crisis and austerity better than others. She has committed to tackle this disparity head-on.
A similar sense of unease with the status quo lies behind Trump’s economic policies. The now President campaigned with vivid descriptions of the places and people ‘abandoned’ by politicians to the fate of unemployment and decline. He has promised to ‘bring prosperity to every part of this country’, renew infrastructure and ‘put our miners and steelworkers back to work’ whilst cutting taxes and regulation.[6] Like May’s industrial strategy, it is unclear at present how prosperity can be brought to all the places suffering economic stagnation and decline, and how his promised ‘gleaming new infrastructure’ will be funded.
The rhetoric of both May and Trump imply that we will soon see a radical reshaping of the economic fortunes of their respective countries, smoothing regional disparities and reviving cities and regions which have been left behind in the postindustrial era. Both are silent on what these promises mean for the winning cities and regions of the past 40 years. And it remains to be seen how these bold commitments will be fulfilled.
The RSA has recently set up a dedicated website which features cutting edge research, comment and analysis on the implications of Brexit and May’s emerging industrial strategy for cities and regions http://brexit.regionalstudies.org/ Keep checking the site for the latest resources.

[1] http://press.conservatives.com/post/147947450370/we-can-make-britain-a-country-that-works-for
[3] http://press.conservatives.com/post/151282679955/clark-an-industrial-strategy-that-works-for
[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-speech-to-the-lord-mayors-banquet-14-november-2016
[5] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/cbi-annual-conference-2016-prime-ministers-speech
[6] https://www.donaldjtrump.com/press-releases/trump-delivers-speech-on-jobs-at-new-york-economic-club