Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Lord Mandelson sets out his path to UK recovery; is it the right one?

This blog enters 2010 with a look into the UK's industrial future. Today the Business Secretary Lord Mandelson showcased his new policy agenda 'Going for Growth: Building Britain's future economy' in a lengthy speech at the Work Foundation. This blogger was pleased to be given an invitation, and duly took it up. This speech has got a little lost among the news noise of a possible Labour leadership challenge and bad weather in the UK, but it remains important, and also suggests that the government are at least aware that economic growth is the way to get the UK out of debt.

In terms of business policy Lord Mandelson is broadly suggesting that the UK should look away from solely relying upon the financial sector for economic growth and tax revenue. Government will aim to set up new partnerships with the private sector to drive capital investment, while the government will attempt to pressurize firms to improve the links between pay and performance. The sectors to be concentrated on will generally be knowledge intensive, such as electronics, the nuclear industry, plastics, biotechnology and low carbon industries. A regional approach will be pursued, with Regional Development Agencies working closely with Universities in their areas to establish new R&D centres of excellence. These will include a plastic and electronics centre of excellence in County Durham and a nuclear centre of excellence in Yorkshire. Herman Hauser, mentioned on this blog previously in his role as co-founder of Acorn Computers, will report on the possibility of the UK emulating the German Fraunhofer Society to establish a new research concentration. Universities will also be expected to commercialise their work further.

A new Technology Strategy Board will direct all these new research activities, as well as the new Innovation Investment Fund, which will make grants to SMEs of between £2-10m. Some funding will also be given to infrastructure development, although this will require private sector co-operation, but will involve the further expansion of broadband internet access and railway electrification among other projects. Lord Mandelson also has lofty aims for corporate culture; with former Courtaulds Chairman, and present Chair of the Financial Reporting Council Christopher Hogg having undertaken a review of corporate governance. Among the most striking of proposals was that any company making a major acquisition would have to set out a full manifesto for the future of the assets, including what would happen to the head office and R&D functions as well as the productive assets of the company. We were also told that the fiscal plans now set out by the Conservatives suggest that they have no real plan for the future beyond cutting public spending, prolonging recession. An interesting policy agenda for sure, and one which Mandelson claims will see a 'new politics of production and growth.'

But how realistic is this policy agenda? Very little was said in the speech about the future of the service sector, surely now the most important element of the UK economy (and infact the most important element of the economy since at least the mid-nineteenth century). It is true that British manufacturing, while continuing to shrink in employment terms has become more productive, and also true that the UK continues to have a good record in scientific research. The UK also already has a good record in knowledge industries, particularly the niche low-economy-of-scale parts of them. It may also be the case that under such a research intensive policy a lot of highly skilled and high earning jobs will be created, but its less clear that the UK will be able to capture the longer term rents of these inventions. The UK already has a fantastic historic record in invention, with inventions as diverse as the steam engine and polyester fabric historically emerging from its economy. However in both fields it has been clear that just because a country invents something, it does not confer permanent competitive advantage upon that country in manufacture, with today very little polyester fabric manufacture remaining in the UK. The UK is also likely to be unable to competitive advantage in the manufacture of these new products for long, at least for the mass market; as the adoption curve for a new technology rises, the returns per unit from its production fall, and maufacturing is likely to move to developing countries.

While it is worth investing in R&D to the extent that it will generate TFP growth in the UK, it seems that Lord Mandelson may risk placing Britian's eggs dangerously in this basket too, perhaps creating the risk of a UK based 'green technology' bubble reminiscent of the Californian dot-com bubble of 1999-2000. To reduce this over-dependence, surely Lord Mandelson should be looking to further development of the UK's service sector away from manufacturing. Most of the value of products is actually created through their distribution and retailing, not their manufacture. Additionally, in an online world services are becoming increasingly exportable, while knowledge can remain an important input. The UK should also target research resources towards service industries to help them to remain a competitive source of employment in the UK, not just attempting to create a new manufacturing sector which is unlikely to have a great life expectancy. The UK can have a vibrant economic future which need not only mean relative economic decline, but this will only be possible if growth comes from all the sectors in which the UK is strong, not just some of them.

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About Me

London, United Kingdom
I'm Lecturer in Management at The York Management School, at The University of York, UK. I teach strategic management to undergraduate and masters students, as well as running the masters dissertation module. My research focuses on business and management history.