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January 31, 2017updated 27 Mar 2023 3:36pm

The industrial strategy white paper is an opportunity to rebuild the nation’s skills

By Paul Watson

Few people would consider the publication of a Green Paper a big moment for our country. The Green Paper last week was an honourable exception since it put into black ink the words “industrial strategy”. Many of us in local government – and particularly in my area of the country – have been waiting years to hear those words from Westminster.

The Green Paper reminds us of the brutal facts about economic inequality across the United Kingdom. By now, these are very familiar: a wide discrepancy in educational attainment across the country, significant disparities in transport capacity, a gap in research and development funding.

We could go on, but in the end it boils down to this: the productivity gap. London’s gross value added per person is 72 per cent higher than the UK average. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and many cities in the North and the Midlands have below average GVA. Lower GVA means lower wages. That is the essence of the challenge we have to overcome.

The paper’s suggestions were encouraging – and Key Cities, the body which represents mid-sized cities and which I chair, is committed to providing the government with the support it needs to move as boldly as it likes.

That brings me to my first priority: ensuring a proper role in the development of an industrial strategy for cities like ours. We have the greatest potential for industrial growth, and we also represent the very residents whom the Prime Minister has said are at risk of being left behind. The big cities and city regions have a crucial role to play, but the real heart of regenerating British industry is about revitalising mid-sized cities all across the country. Higher productivity, higher wages, and better jobs in these places can serve as the foundation to build a stronger, more united, more cohesive country.

It is in that spirit that I welcome the Green Paper’s conclusion that

“strong, streamlined, decentralised governance […] can improve economic decision-making and spur innovation and productivity gains”.

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I would urge the government, though, not to feel bound by the model of devolution pursued by David Cameron’s government. Metro-mayors and city-region deals can work, but we have to move beyond structures. Put simply, structures don’t put food on the table – skills do.

That is our core focus for this Industrial Strategy – skills. There are a number of factors we need to consider, but skills stand out. That is where Britain has lagged most noticeably behind other OECD countries.

The Green Paper envisages a new system of technical education, including a simpler set of qualifications, and easier routes into technical education for prospective students. It also suggests creating new Institutes of Technology – or old ones, if like me, you remember the polytechnics – to deliver higher-level technical education in all regions.

Let’s embrace these ideas. Let’s start by halting the punishing cuts to Further Education. Let’s make a serious commitment to non-university education that provides rigorous qualifications and a route into well-paying work. Let’s shake off 150 years of social prejudice in our educational system. Look at Germany and Sweden, for instance: they’ve invested in technical education. Their wages and productivity compared to ours show the results.

Let’s not stop at schools. Let’s bring in businesses, universities, local authorities. We can work together to identify the needs of our local economies and provide better opportunities for our local workforce. Between us, we can drive investment in research and development, physical infrastructure, and human capital to create vibrant cities once more. The government has said that is their aim, so we will do everything we can to make sure they succeed.

We aren’t given opportunities like this very often. So let’s go for it.

Cllr Paul Watson is leader of Sunderland City Council and chair of the Key Cities group of 26 mid-sized cities. 

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