Theresa May give details of action plan for British industry

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Prime Minister Theresa May meets local business leaders at Ski-Tech in DaresburyImage source, Reuters
Image caption,
Mrs May met local business leaders during her regional visit

Prime Minister Theresa May has unveiled plans for a new, more interventionist, industrial strategy, designed to boost the post-Brexit UK economy.

The government will be "stepping up to a new, active role", Mrs May said.

The plan was published in a green paper as she held her first regional cabinet meeting in the north-west of England.

Broadband, transport and energy are highlighted in a bid to "align central government infrastructure investment with local growth priorities".

The 10-point plan involves:

  • Investing in science, research and innovation
  • Developing skills
  • Upgrading infrastructure
  • Supporting business to start and grow
  • Improving government procurement
  • Encouraging trade and inward investment
  • Delivering affordable energy and clean growth
  • Cultivating world-leading sectors
  • Driving growth across the whole country
  • Creating the right institutions to bring together sectors and places

"Underpinning this strategy is a new approach to government, not just stepping back and leaving business to get on with the job, but stepping up to a new, active role that backs business and ensures more people in all corners of the country share in the benefits of its success," the prime minister said.

"This active government will build on Britain's strategic strengths and tackle our underlying weaknesses, like low productivity."

The green paper sets out ways in which the government can provide support to businesses by addressing regulatory barriers, agreeing trade deals and helping to establish institutions that encourage innovation and skills development.

Mrs May also plans to boost STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills, digital skills and numeracy, including extending specialist maths schools, while £170m will be invested in creating new institutes of technology.

Business leaders welcomed the plan, which also aims to boost life sciences and low-emission vehicles.

Image source, Getty Images

Smart energy, robotics, artificial intelligence and 5G mobile network technology are some of the areas that could receive support through a new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, according to Downing Street.

The fund is part of £4.7bn in additional funding for research and development first announced in November.

Business Secretary Greg Clark told the BBC that the government was staging a "consultation on what should be our priorities for a long-term industrial strategy".

He said the UK had some of the best universities in the world, but people had not had the alternative to learn practical skills.

"For many years, we have not been as good on technical education as our competitors," he said.

Welcoming the new strategy, the director-general of the CBI, Carolyn Fairbairn, said: "It must help fix the country's productivity problems and remove the regional inequalities that have dogged our country for generations, having a positive impact on living standards, wages and the future opportunities of many people."

Media caption,
Business Secretary Greg Clark: Strategy will "spread the opportunities" across the country

Business will get a chance to consult on the industrial strategy proposals. The Institute of Directors said the strategy must concentrate on skills and infrastructure, not cash injections.

"It is painful to watch established businesses fail, but the government should be very sceptical of its power to keep struggling companies going through cash payments," said James Sproule, director of policy at the IoD.

"Instead, the focus should be on retraining anyone who becomes unemployed, so that communities can adapt to changes in the economy."

Sir Brendan Barber, who chairs the Acas arbitration service, welcomed the strategy, saying: "A strong economy where the UK's productivity levels are comparable to the best in the world will reap benefits to both employers and employees."

'Too little'

But Labour's shadow business secretary, Clive Lewis, questioned how much money the government was investing in the strategy: "We await further detail, but what's been announced so far will fall far short of getting us back to where we were in 2010, let alone equip our economy for the challenges of the 21st Century."

The government has stated its aim of reducing the UK economy's reliance on the services sector, especially financial services, over the past few years, leading to former Chancellor George Osborne's plans to create a Northern Powerhouse.

The challenge has come into greater focus as the UK faces negotiating a new economic relationship with the European Union.

Analysis: Simon Jack, BBC business editor

If we have learnt anything about "Mayism" it's that she doesn't think the benefits of business success will percolate through the country without a bit of a push from government.

Her business minister, Greg Clark, is also no believer in total freedom of the market. Today's industrial strategy is an attempt to lend a helping hand without having both on the steering wheel.

The best way to do that, thinks the government, is to provide something that just about everyone agrees is needed and provide it in a location-appropriate way to sectors where we are already pretty successful.

Image caption,
Manchester is one of the northern towns and cities that is at the heart of the Powerhouse

Mrs May also announced a further £556m investment in the Northern Powerhouse.

The investment includes money for the Goole Intermodal Terminal, linking rail, sea and road, a conference centre in Blackpool, and a new innovation fund for businesses in Manchester and Cheshire.

However, the University and College Union (UCU) said investing £170m in creating new institutes of technology amounted to a "drop in the ocean" and "another set of gimmicks".

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, which represents more than 110,000 academics, lecturers, trainers, teachers and administrative staff, said it was little more than a "relaunched skills strategy".

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation welcomed the investment, but said low-paid people needed help now.