Remember those days in school when you sat in an exam with a vague and woolly idea of the answers to the question on the paper but the facts themselves somehow eluded you? The net result was a piece of flowery writing which made lots of hazy references to relevant stuff without actually making any points particularly worthy of marks. I only mention this uncomfortable sensation because it was one I felt anew, but without nostalgia, while reading the government's much-fanfared, Building our Industrial Strategy, published on Tuesday. Snappy title undeniably, but a bit like eating cardboard in that it lacked anything nutritious or flavoursome
I would define a strategy as a plan of action for achieving particular results. Successful strategies take into account all the vital elements required to realise their stated aim. Britain's industrial strategy relies on lots of things, not least the ability of industry to transport raw materials and finished goods to and from their centres of production in a sustainable, economical and efficient manner. So, how many of the 132 pages of this much-heralded tome are dedicated to logistics?
I love a word count. It tells you so much about how a document has been conceived. The word freight occurs on - well actually on not a single occasion. Logistics is there once, but referring to the health service and there's no mention of lorries, HGVs, shipping, maritime, cargo - the list goes on and on. By contrast there are sixteen references to last year's Autumn Statement and five to the £1.1 billion pounds of infrastructure money (therefore old money not new) allocated therein. The point is, for all the gloss and fluff of the document, there is nothing there regarding the integrated transport policy (something Britain has not had since Roman times) needed to make any industrial strategy worth the paper on which it's written.
Where is the pump-priming for manufacturing? Where is the mention of smart motorways (genuine not the cheap all-lane running version) and smart traffic control systems like traffic lights which respond to the volume of vehicles waiting to move? Where is the forward thinking regarding future-proofing our roads for autonomous vehicles and lorry platooning? These are areas in which we lead the world in terms of technology and innovation yet constantly fail to take advantage of that lead. The report itself states that, "the World Economic Forum ranks the country 24th globally in overall transport infrastructure quality (the second lowest of the G7).
A survey in 2015 by the Confederation of British Industry found that 90 per cent of businesses were concerned that trains are full, 96 per cent felt that roads are too congested." It goes on, "There has been an historic lack of clear long-term thinking in the Government's approach to national infrastructure strategy - in how we join up at a national level."
So, one might ask, what is the point of issuing a strategy document which signally fails even to attempt to confront those deep-rooted and economically devastating problems, not to mention their impact on the environment or people's daily lives? Beyond that, the document fails to put forward a credible and much needed plan addressing the potentially huge holes in the economy following our divorce from the European Union. While I treat such figures with healthy scepticism, I have seen estimates of the cost alone of leaving the customs union alone ranging from £25 billion to £44 billion, most of which will fall on the shipping and aviation cargo sectors. It's pretty hard to build an industrial strategy without taking at least some note of the impact of such financially seismic activity, and that's just one example.
Britain certainly needs an industrial strategy based on an integrated transport policy, an integrated energy policy, structured support for industry and a system of education and training which creates a working population able to add value to any business. It needs to take advantage of our technological edge combining the best from our academic and commercial research sectors. It needs a holistic approach where all the pieces fit together to the best advantage of each type of industry. It's a lot to ask but this document doesn't even come close to meeting any of these goals.
In two years time, this document will be forgotten, another heralded government report which has come to nothing; another "bright new dawn" which has no lasting impact on our country's economy. It won't be the first and there are countless such government publications on many a dusty shelf which when first produced were sold as full of promise for a brave new world, only to disappoint and then fade from memory over time. The problem is that this time we're looking at a two year window before the true implications of leaving the EU, currently unknown to all of us, really kick in. Mrs May, we really needed a credible plan for an uncertain future, and her failure to produce one could have dire consequences for us all.