The UK is beset by challenges. Some are life-threatening, like the coronavirus pandemic which has killed more than 50,000 people in the UK.
Some will change society, like the climate challenge – a national endeavour to modernise our homes, transport and industry to live without fossil fuels.
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We are also facing a jobs and skills challenge – in this recession some businesses have closed, never to re-open. Graduates and school leavers face a daunting uncertain job market. The UK must recover, yes, but business as usual is not an option.
The unprecedented shock to our economy of Covid-19 and the ever-pressing climate deadlines demand a rethink about how UK plc grows and sustains our economy in the coming decades. Manufacturing output is central to our response. We cannot go back to a two speed Britain, the fast lane driven by London and the inner South East, plus a few university towns, producing ever better paid jobs and incomes whilst governments distribute a few civil service jobs, grants and funding to areas whose best industries have gone.
While parts of the UK have raced ahead, many communities in the North, Wales and Midlands have been consigned to the slow lane. I represented a Northern community in Parliament for over 20 years. For me this is personal.
I am delighted to Chair the Advisory Board of the Institute of Prosperity which launched this week. A campaign and the brainchild of businessman John Mills, we will be working with MPs John Penrose, Stephanie Peacock, Stephen Kinnock, and Emma Lewell-Buck as well as Rt Hon Sir Vince Cable, Lord Nigel Vinson, and Professor Stephen Pollock to turn up the dial on how best to deliver economic growth and put manufacturing centre stage.
As a cross party group of current and former politicians, academics, economists, and entrepreneurs we are calling for a rebalancing of the economy to support left-behind communities and get the economy growing at a much higher rate. We will collaborate on research, help build cross-party consensus, promote policies for growth and campaign for a more balanced economy.
This is bigger than Brexit, bigger than any one party’s stance, and bigger than the parties’ competition to represent the so-called Red Wall.
This is about reshaping the UK economy to enable every region to prosper and contribute, and to see the UK raise its standing as a maker and builder once more. The answer lies in one vital ingredient. Neglected for too long by successive governments: manufacturing.
Manufacturing jobs have declined. Yet many of those jobs require skills and pay above average wages. ONS figures show that in 2018 manufacturing accounted for £4.40 in every £10 of UK’s export earnings – so it punches above its weight when it comes to earning from abroad.
Manufacturing can generate wealth for every region and produces taxes for Government to use to fund our public services and to save lives.
We believe we can grow manufacturing by half again, from the 10 per cent of UK output it represents to 15 per cent. In Germany, according to the World Bank, it is 20 per cent – so we have a way to go.
If the UK focused on investment in technology, energy (especially low carbon), infrastructure and skills, we would transform our economy. For example on climate change: do nuclear power plants require Chinese design? Do wind turbines need to be Danish? Electric cars from South Korea or the US? We want a green revolution stamped “Made in Britain”.
The Government is right to invest in manufacturing capacity in the coronavirus: vaccine manufacturing in Oxfordshire and Livingston, fulfilment in Wrexham, glass vials from Stoke on Trent. Vaccines for us, but also to supply far beyond our shores.
The UK must also renew and upgrade our infrastructure, and in doing so, support UK business. HS2’s tracks and cables should equal British steel and British cables.
Finally, new jobs, new businesses, new production, new technology – needs new skilled workers. Millions will need retraining. Reskilled and upskilling must be central to modern business.
Our goal is nothing less than the UK helping the world face health and climate challenges and becoming a great manufacturing force once again.
Caroline Flint is Chair of The Advisory Board of the Institute for Prosperity and former Government Minister and MP for Don Valley