What is the Future of the Industrial Strategy? With Chris White, Director, Institute for Industrial Strategy, King’s College London

During a WIG webinar on the future of the Industrial Strategy, you posed some of your questions to Chris White, Director of the Institute for Industrial Strategy at King’s College London.

Answering in written form, Chris has shared his insight into the future of the landmark policy framework, including what lessons can be gleamed from the current Covid-19 crisis.

Covid-19 has profoundly changed the government’s appetite for interventionism. Do you think there is an interaction between the Covid-19 response and the future of the Industrial Strategy?

Our recent national experience will have highlighted what works and what doesn’t. Industry and academia have shown a great willingness to collaborate, not least through informal structures, and we have also demonstrated strengths in terms of innovation.  Where we can learn, in my view, as I described in one of my slides, is how Departments need to move away from the hub and spoke model to a more networked relationship, increasing productivity and effectiveness in the process.  The use of different communications channels, including an enhanced digital capability, will become more efficient, with expectations being raised. I think the environment supports the argument for a more embedded Industrial Strategy, following perhaps an extensive ‘lessons learnt’ exercise, towards a more broad-based stakeholder narrative.

What can those in Industry do to help drive successful implementation of the Industrial Strategy?

Identify regional relationships and support local industrial strategies, through understanding local heritage, partnerships, communications/infrastructure links and ambition.  I do think a great deal can be done by industry, even without the explicit support of government.  As technology drives an ever-faster pace and we find the number of disruptive industries accelerating, Westminster/Whitehall may find it harder to keep up, not least in terms of legislation. To remain competitive, industry will, I imagine, increasingly need to take the initiative.

Regions, Combined Authorities, LEPs, Metro Mayors… It's a messy regional taxonomy, is this a hinderance?

Agreed! Governments, traditionally, cannot resist establishing new bodies, and these are often the ‘enemy’ of a consensual, long term strategy, in additional to creating a sub-national ‘lag’ in relation to central policy roll-out.

A further point worth considering is the variable level of quality of these bodies; what mechanisms can we use to ‘level up’, in what is often a hugely complex decision-making process.  More attention needs to be directed to political (i.e. elected representative) leadership, and how this is incentivised to work more collaboratively – a direction that civil servants would surely be content to follow. For example, the Treasury could draft budgets that were more strategic, and less competitive, in nature.  I would add that the Metro Mayors appear to be doing a good job; perhaps further devolution and empowerment is the answer?

The Grand Challenge Missions appeared to be an attempt to provide some focus within the challenges (eg. The ‘Buildings Mission’). Are we likely to see more of these as a focus for energy and resource?

I believe so, but this very much depends on a constancy of purpose. Take for example the Future of Mobility Challenge. It will be hard, but necessary, to maintain a level of focus on this, whether we are talking about carbon zero, autonomous vehicles or the societal impact – and key to this will be how a supportive narrative is associated with the challenge.  The multi-dimensional complexity of such ideas needs to reach higher levels of public awareness. How these technologies will impact ‘jobs of the future’ or even an ‘economy that works for everyone’ deserves an increasing level of public debate…

How do we best achieve collaborative government without departments lobbying for their own goals?

This is difficult, but not insurmountable and should not only be possible in a crisis; for example, to better predict and plan for need in advance of demand. It will take political leadership and various incentives to break the traditional stereotype, but as I mentioned, this is the Holy Grail! I would suggest that with the government’s majority as it is, there will be an opportunity for some more radical policy developments in this area.

Won't the long-term economic cost of Covid-19 mean that funding for the Industrial Strategy will be a low priority for the foreseeable future?

The economic costs of Covid-19 will be huge, but I cannot see an alternative remedial policy than a long-term, scaled and collaborative Industrial Strategy. It will take time to deliver investment in innovation, increased levels of productivity, local industrial strategies, and so on, but they will provide the stability and confidence that industry, both nationally and internationally, will need to fully recover in terms of trade and growth.

Is there a way that the 'Levelling Up' agenda and improving productivity at a national level can be made to work in concert, or is there an inevitable tension inherent in these objectives?

I do not think these concepts are mutually exclusive, in fact, they are interdependent. Prof. Colin Talbot gave an excellent webinar on levelling up last week through WIG, which I would recommend listening to.  However, the way to address these challenges and puzzles is first to realise that there is a national problem, which needs addressing. That it is high on the Government’s agenda is a good thing, and I for one look forward to seeing how these intentions are fleshed out.

How will success be measured this year with regards to the progress in implementing the Industrial Strategy?

I think this is very much a role for the Industrial Strategy Council.  However, I don’t think it should wait until its next annual report (February 2021) to re-audit the strategy and make further recommendations – by then I believe too much will have changed.  There is also a role for the various Westminster Select Committees and MPs themselves to call for debates in Parliament.  I would hope though, that BEIS is constantly monitoring the progress of its own strategy and will be able to make a fair assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. In my view, the value and the opportunity of the Industrial Strategy is underestimated. It will be more than disappointing if it is not allowed the necessary resources or supported appropriately to achieve its full potential.  It will not benefit from a number of (from industry’s point of view, increasingly wearisome) relaunches!

Can Whitehall adapt their Industrial Strategies to the post Covid-19 environment, which will likely be local development-orientated?

I think it is too early to tell how exactly the Industrial Strategy will be structured post Covid-19.  However, I hope this environment will be considered with Industrial Strategy at its heart. Local development will play a major role, not least in terms of infrastructure, communication and connectivity – all part of the levelling up agenda…  It will be very interesting to see how this develops!

WIG members can watch Prof. White's presentation, and other webinar recordings in our resource library

  • Chris White

    Director of the Institute for Industrial Strategy

    King's College London

    Chris is the Director of the Institute for Industrial Strategy, King’s College London, and former Member of Parliament for Warwick and Leamington, 2010-2017. As an MP, he was a member of both the International Development and Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Select Committees.  He chaired a variety of All Party Parliamentary Groups, including those on Manufacturing and Social Enterprise. Amongst other roles, Chris is now the President of the Warwickshire College Group and Vice Chair of Social Enterprise UK. He has recently been appointed an Honorary Senior Visiting Fellow at City, University of London. Chris has written papers on a variety topics, including the Industrial Strategy and Social Value, in collaboration with King’s Policy Institute and Social Enterprise UK respectively.  He is proud to be the author of the Private Member’s Bill, now known as the Social Value Act.  This legislation now influences some £26bn, around 10% of Government spending.