The UK economy needs to grow; for growth we need successful businesses; successful businesses need modern infrastructure and skills. Yet sadly, right now the UK hasn’t got enough of any of it.
It was a point made very well by Lord Digby Jones, former director general of the CBI and current UK trade ambassador, during a keynote lecture at the ICE this week.
“Cuts never grew anything,” he said referring to the coalition’s war on spending. “We have to have policies that grow the economy. We cannot rise to the challenge unless our own infrastructure is world class”
OK, he’s not everyone’s cup of tea. While for many he’s the straight-talking, down to earth, driving force for UK business and antidote to Lord Sugar, to others, he’s simply that annoying ex-lawyer from Birmingham who used to run the CBI.
But love him or loathe him, he does understand the challenge faced by the UK economy and the value of investment in infrastructure. And he does understand that the UK has got its work cut out to remain competitive in the face of global economics.
“Like his stature, Lord Jones’ numbers are rounded. But the challenge we face was clearly made. There are 1.3bn un-industrialised Chinese and 750M people in the fields of India all eying up our lunch”
Like his stature, Lord Jones’ numbers are rounded. But the challenge we face was clearly made. There are 1.3bn un-industrialised Chinese and 750M people in the fields of India all eying up our lunch.
The solution, as he pointed out, is to ensure that the UK has the infrastructure, skills and therefore the businesses to create the value added stuff that these increasingly wealthy people want to use.
The solution is to ensure that the UK public sector works to create an environment in which the private sector wants to invest, wants to work and is capable of thriving in.
So as chancellor George Osborne attempts to move the narrative of his economic policy away from a focus on cuts towards the vital yet so far largely ignored agenda of growth, he would do well to heed Lord Jones’ advice on the drivers for such desired growth.
“This is the most important time for two generations for UK infrastructure as without it business will not succeed,” he said, pointing to projects such as High Speed Two and investment in new nuclear power, renewables and carbon capture and storage.
And equally around the need to ensure that the UK has sufficient skilled people to take on the challenge, a point echoed at the event by Amey chief executive Mel Ewell as a “frightening scenario ahead of us”.
“The greatest threat is that we will suddenly need to press the go button and nothing happens,” he added.
Clearly the route to skills and growth has to be industry wide, has to involve a new environment of innovative, open and shared thinking across the public and private sector.
This environment of mutual industry benefit will be crucial. As Lord Jones pointed out: “It is remarkable what you can achieve when you don’t care who takes the credit.”
- Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor