Liam Booth-Smith is the Chief Executive of the think tank Localis.
In his book The New Machiavelli former Blair chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, often laments the missed opportunities during his time in Downing Street. From a lack of boldness on cabinet appointees through to poorly chosen rhetoric and policy, his hindsight reminds the reader that bad policy, much like bad poetry, almost always starts with an honest idea.
Take the government’s industrial strategy. If handled well, it could reboot our economy and increase the Conservative Party’s electoral reach. If not, an opportunity to recast Conservatism as something which, to borrow the cliche, “works for everyone” will be lost. The risk of failure is greatest when turning an idea into action.
In Localis’s new report, The Making of an Industrial Strategy, we set out a vision to help government ensure the opportunity isn’t missed. We need local leadership of the industrial strategy, and this should be supported by further devolution of powers to our cities and towns. But we also need a special focus on parts of England which are often ignored by policy makers fixated on large city regions. I speak of our towns and small cities, or as we call them in our new report; the Stuck and the Stifled.
The former are places which haven’t recovered from the economic trauma of the 1980s and the latter are areas whose rapid growth is constrained by their boundaries. Economically diverse, and stretching from Plymouth on the south west coast to Sunderland on the north east, these small cities and towns are of increasing political importance.
For example, follow England’s north western sea board and you find parliamentary seats in Barrow, Wyre and Blackpool – all well within marginal territory. It’s a smart bet to assume this coastal erosion of Labour’s vote – Copeland standing testament – is happening across the country. These stifled and stuck towns are home to many of England’s battleground constituencies. If Theresa May wants to increase her majority at the next election, then it’s these places she’ll need to convince.
The industrial strategy is the perfect delivery vehicle for her message. Government needs to quietly put aside the devolution deal process and instead automatically transfer a suite of new powers to local leaders. Everywhere should have the opportunity to help themselves. Places which are identified as having high-growth potential, such as Cambridge, Norwich or Milton Keynes can use their new powers to keep pace with demand for housing, infrastructure and business premises.
Those places which require a shot of economic adrenaline, like Stoke-on-Trent or Tameside, should benefit from radical policies to make their local tax arrangements attractive to investment and talent. For example, government could increase the amount of relief offered on investment in small to medium sized companies located in a specific area. The Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme offers 50 per cent on investments up to £100,000. Why not make it 80 per cent for businesses in the Tees Valley?
Theresa May has the chance to roll up a slew of seats which resisted the charms of David Cameron. What’s needed are the right policies. Business Secretary Greg Clark recently said any “successful industrial strategy has to be local”. He’s entirely correct. The industrial strategy should give control to local communities and in so doing send an important message about the Prime Minister’s brand of conservatism.