Nick Faith is the Founder of WPI Strategy.
Over the past 10 months, my company has been working with a group of some of the highest profile business leaders from across the UK on a long-term plan to ensure we do not just recover from the pandemic but thrive in a post-Brexit Britain.
The National Prosperity Plan, published today by the Covid Recovery Commission, is the culmination of this work and includes input from over 100 public policy experts, academics and business groups.
It is overwhelmingly optimistic in its tone. By harnessing everything which is great about Britain – our leading universities, world-class innovation and R&D, our businesses and financial system, our democracy, our institutions and governance – the report makes it clear that the UK is well placed to emerge from the pandemic in a stronger position over time.
The report is also pragmatic. It acknowledges the deep-rooted challenges that we face as a nation; poor productivity levels, underinvestment in high-quality technical education and training, the inability of small businesses to access the finance they need to scale-up.
The plan that we are setting out today will not solve all these problems with the flick of a magic wand. It is, however, an attempt to set a framework that we hope will lead to a new compact between government, business and civic society to deliver on a set of shared national imperatives.
There are a number of elements to the report but five core areas are set out below:
1. For “levelling up” to be successful, it cannot be constrained to specific geographical regions and we must be able to measure progress
The inequality gap has only worsened as a result of the pandemic. Unemployment levels, mortality rates and mental health cases are rising fastest in the most deprived communities across the UK. These communities are found in every part of the UK, and often within some of the wealthiest local authorities. A one size fits all approach to “levelling up” simply won’t work.
A successful recovery will rely on having clearly defined objectives and metrics and using data to make decisions and monitor progress. We believe that this should be delivered through a National Prosperity Scorecard. This would be a list government would publish of how every locality in the country measured up against some key social and economic indicators, including employment and benefit dependency rates as well as health and educational outcomes.
2. Government needs to play an active role in creating the conditions for high value, globally competitive industries to flourish
Industrial strategy as a term may be confined to the store cupboard in the Department for Business, but there is a clear role for government to play in setting a national framework for growth. The Government’s Plan for Growth, published alongside the March Budget, is the industrial strategy’s successor. It has many strengths including a focus on growing existing and building new net zero industries and creating the conditions for high growth, innovative businesses.
Business stands behind these ambitions but needs more detail. We need to be honest about our existing industrial strengths and weaknesses. We need to develop a Great British Supply Chain to support our globally competitive industries, using the government’s purchasing power to create long-term certainty for businesses.
Were the government to commit to a 15 year National Deal for Net Zero Homes, for example, including publicly financing the retrofit of all council owned homes by 2030, it would act “pump prime” the energy efficiency market, providing the demand certainty needed for businesses to invest, innovate and deliver better and cheaper products at scale.
3. Local leaders must be given proper powers and funding to set their own plans for growth and prosperity
With poverty and inequality spread right across the UK, success will mean ensuring that prosperity rises in all parts of the country. However, the nature of the opportunities and challenges in different areas varies greatly between regions and communities, and policy responses will need to reflect these differences. This means that we need to understand these differences, build plans and track progress on delivering prosperity at a local level.
Local leaders should be given the power and funding to create their own Local Prosperity Plans, working with businesses and civic leaders to ensure their area can identify and seize upon the unique opportunities to develop high value industries in their area while supporting local people through tailored training programmes and financial and mental health support. Ben Houchen’s ambition for Teesside to become a global hub for clean energy development and deployment is a perfect example of what can be achieved when the centre devolves more power.
4. Retraining and upskilling our workforce is a non-negotiable if we are to create a more productive and a fairer society
The pandemic has caused significant economic disruption across the UK and, despite extensive government support, millions of people have lost their jobs. Digitisation and decarbonisation have the potential to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs but the transition to a tech enabled, greener economy could have an unequal impact on specific areas of the UK, for example those traditionally reliant on carbon intensive industries.
The Commission believes that lifelong learning will be key to supporting this transition to higher skilled, higher paid jobs. That is why our report proposes that every worker in the UK be given an individual pot of money – potentially as much as £10,000 – which can be used throughout their working lives to access accredited courses, for example, to improve their digital skills.
5. Businesses can no longer sit on the sidelines or be sidelined
Economic success in the next century calls for a more compassionate form of capitalism. More than ever, businesses must recognise that they have a broader role to play in supporting and driving the delivery of shared societal goals.
This means working more closely with central government, local policymakers and civic institutions to deliver real change in communities across the UK. This could take the form of providing increased mental health support to workers or co-investing in social infrastructure projects, for example, supporting local technical colleges or investing in digital training courses for local residents.
The businesses on the Covid Recovery Commission are committed to working with others to build prosperity right across the UK: ensuring that individuals, families and communities can enjoy better economic, social and environmental outcomes. Let’s harness this energy and create a stronger, fairer and more resilient society.