The Levelling Up White Paper and Manufacturing

Finally, the Levelling Up White Paper was released on 2nd February. It has taken three years since ‘levelling up’ was set as a priority as the Prime Minister delivered his first speech with a Downing Street backdrop. It’s been delayed, but finally, here it is. The concern now is that it is, again, a great deal of talk and not much action.

While manufacturing is given some attention in the report, it needs to go further as being the driving force for levelling up. I maintain that manufacturing needs to be the beating heart of regional change – as it originally was – and that we need to pay more attention to how we do this.

The need for levelling up is nothing new

The UK trails painfully behind others when it comes to regional equality. Indeed, the UK has a higher level of regional inequality than any other large wealthy economy This is the case when looking at many different measures, from productivity to crime and from pay to health. It’s worth noting that while the stark big picture reality divides the country by large regions (county to county), some of the largest disparities occur within urban areas, all across the country. There is a hyper-local element, as well as a national one. My own borough of Stockport is the 8th most polarised borough in England.

Not only is this embarrassing and a situation which should challenge our moral and ethical standing, it’s harmful to the country as a whole. We could be so much more successful, if we truly tackled our regional disparities.

It’s within this context that the White Paper continues (very much) on previous policy ideas for evening things out. The goals within it are notably ambitious and all set to be delivered by 2030.

What does the Levelling Up White Paper say?

You can read the full and summarised versions of the White Paper, but here I summarise what is contained in it.

Notably, the government sets out five pillars to the new policy regime with 12 UK-wide missions with broad goals pinned on fruition by 2030. The authors themselves write that it provides specific policy interventions that build on the 2021 Spending Review, but it’s actually not quite that clear cut.

The overall ethos is the concept of bringing disadvantaged areas up, and driving growth overall, rather than equalising across the country. It’s an ambitious goal but has the potential to widen the gap further unless done with extreme care. Nonetheless, the push to drive economic growth and higher productivity in all regions is welcomed. The focus is on pushing the private sector to promote growth.

The pillars and goals on the face of it sound good, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. For example, the goal to increased domestic public investment in R&D outside the Greater London South East by at least 40% and the goal to have 200,000 more people successfully completing high quality skills training every year are both ‘good’ things.

There are some aspects where the money is seemingly forthcoming. For example, the White Paper establishes that £100m of investment in three Innovation Accelerators, on a Stanford-Silicon Valley or MIT-Greater Boston model will be focused in Greater Manchester, Glasgow and the West Midlands. This fits with our desperate need to reduce regional inequality by supporting manufacturing in these regions.

Specifically, the White Paper states that “We must support high-growth businesses and reverse the historic decline in manufacturing in the UK with more of the sort of innovation which characterises economies such as South Korea and Israel.” It lists current success stories such as the Britishvolt gigafactory and the commitment by Nissan and Envision to centre electric vehicle manufacturing in Sunderland.

The real story for manufacturing

My belief remains that there needs to be much more focus on manufacturing. We were once the ‘workshop of the world’ and if we can revitalise our economy actively utilising our industrial heartlands then the result will be a more sustainable levelling up across the country and across regions. Those that know me, know how passionate I am about digitalising manufacturing, and the huge advantages this holds for both modern and traditional manufacturing businesses whether large and small.

Specifically, we need to go well beyond talking about it to actually doing more. Investment needs to be consistent and sustainable. We need to change our outlook to understand why manufacturing matters so much and we can’t simply base our economy on London’s financial centre. We need to make manufacturing in the UK attractive at every level, from inspiring the school leaver in their career options to encouraging overseas investment. This would solve so many problems beyond regional inequality, from dealing with skills gaps to regenerating disadvantaged areas.

At the moment, as things stand, the UK is not highly attractive for manufacturing. The inflation of GBP has been painful for manufacturing where such a large proportion of costs are directly attributable to it. British made products need to be affordable for everyone else, if we’re going to encourage investment in the country, specifically in the regions where investment is most needed.

It’s all within our reach. We’ve had and got hubs of manufacturing which shouldn’t be, as National World says, “relegated to an addendum at the end of a much-delayed paper like this one.” We need actual change, and unfortunately, the White Paper does little to hint at this, let alone assert how the promises within it will be achieved. The plan needs to be more concrete and more actionable. There is momentum building within the sector for a dedicated ‘Minister for Manufacturing’ which is testament to how important the sector is to the longer terms plans any government will want to pursue in order to equalise the UK.

Is Levelling Up meaningless?

The concepts are far from meaningless. We need to take steps to tackle regional disparity in the UK. The goals are worthy and if it revitalises energy in various government departments to work together for the greater good, then that’s important. If it translates to new cash for schemes, that would be remarkably positive.

However, there is a backdrop of delays and no new funding, but largely rehashed existing funding, which gives the white paper a distinct sense of hot air. Instead, focusing on manufacturing would power-up the UK from within its regions, bringing greater equality as a welcome by-product.

Importantly, as I mentioned earlier, the change within manufacturing needs to come through greater digital adoption. This isn’t easy, perhaps most critically in terms of skills shortages, but it is critical. The good news is that there are many diverse and varied initiatives available where businesses can access digital adoption support. Change can come from within businesses, by them seeking out training and learning.

Not sure where to start? The Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) has its National Manufacturing Summit on 8th and 9th February and it’s free to attend.

The In4.0Group is another business based in Manchester that is rapidly building up momentum and delivering free and paid digital adoption training and support.

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