The industrial strategy white paper is an opportunity to rebuild the nation’s skills

Berlin, where they're rather better at teaching vocational skills. Image: Getty.

Few people would consider the publication of a Green Paper a big moment for our country. The Green Paper last week was an honourable exception since it put into black ink the words “industrial strategy”. Many of us in local government – and particularly in my area of the country – have been waiting years to hear those words from Westminster.

The Green Paper reminds us of the brutal facts about economic inequality across the United Kingdom. By now, these are very familiar: a wide discrepancy in educational attainment across the country, significant disparities in transport capacity, a gap in research and development funding.

We could go on, but in the end it boils down to this: the productivity gap. London’s gross value added per person is 72 per cent higher than the UK average. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and many cities in the North and the Midlands have below average GVA. Lower GVA means lower wages. That is the essence of the challenge we have to overcome.

The paper’s suggestions were encouraging – and Key Cities, the body which represents mid-sized cities and which I chair, is committed to providing the government with the support it needs to move as boldly as it likes.

That brings me to my first priority: ensuring a proper role in the development of an industrial strategy for cities like ours. We have the greatest potential for industrial growth, and we also represent the very residents whom the Prime Minister has said are at risk of being left behind. The big cities and city regions have a crucial role to play, but the real heart of regenerating British industry is about revitalising mid-sized cities all across the country. Higher productivity, higher wages, and better jobs in these places can serve as the foundation to build a stronger, more united, more cohesive country.

It is in that spirit that I welcome the Green Paper’s conclusion that

“strong, streamlined, decentralised governance […] can improve economic decision-making and spur innovation and productivity gains”.

I would urge the government, though, not to feel bound by the model of devolution pursued by David Cameron’s government. Metro-mayors and city-region deals can work, but we have to move beyond structures. Put simply, structures don’t put food on the table – skills do.

That is our core focus for this Industrial Strategy – skills. There are a number of factors we need to consider, but skills stand out. That is where Britain has lagged most noticeably behind other OECD countries.

The Green Paper envisages a new system of technical education, including a simpler set of qualifications, and easier routes into technical education for prospective students. It also suggests creating new Institutes of Technology – or old ones, if like me, you remember the polytechnics – to deliver higher-level technical education in all regions.

Let’s embrace these ideas. Let’s start by halting the punishing cuts to Further Education. Let’s make a serious commitment to non-university education that provides rigorous qualifications and a route into well-paying work. Let’s shake off 150 years of social prejudice in our educational system. Look at Germany and Sweden, for instance: they’ve invested in technical education. Their wages and productivity compared to ours show the results.

Let’s not stop at schools. Let’s bring in businesses, universities, local authorities. We can work together to identify the needs of our local economies and provide better opportunities for our local workforce. Between us, we can drive investment in research and development, physical infrastructure, and human capital to create vibrant cities once more. The government has said that is their aim, so we will do everything we can to make sure they succeed.

We aren’t given opportunities like this very often. So let’s go for it.

Cllr Paul Watson is leader of Sunderland City Council and chair of the Key Cities group of 26 mid-sized cities. 

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Meet the YIMBY campaigners hoping to ease the housing crisis

Some houses, being built. Image: Getty.

The nimby is a wearily familiar political breed. Though individuals may support new housing and infrastructure projects in theory, they oppose them in practice (“not in my backyard”). For fear of consequences such as a fall in property values, locals reliably revolt against proposed developments – and politicians retreat. The net result is that cities and countries are denied the housing they need. For the past decade, the UK has fallen far short of the 250,000 new homes required annually to meet demand.

But the nimby has now met its dialectical opposite: the yimby. In contrast to their opponents, yimbys not merely tolerate but welcome development (“yes in my backyard”). The earliest known usage of yimby was in a 1988 New York Times article (“Coping in the Age of Nimby”) and the first organisation was founded in 2007 (Yimby Stockholm). Sister groups have since been established in Toronto, San Francisco, Sao Paulo, Sydney, Helsinki and, most recently, London.

John Myers, a 44-year-old former barrister and financial analyst, co-founded London Yimby with four others last year. They were inspired by the capital’s dysfunctional property market (London is the most expensive major global city for buying or renting) and the success of groups elsewhere.

“We saw what was happening in the States,” Myers said when we spoke. “The San Francisco group has just had three new laws passed in California to get more housing built. There are now more than 30 US cities with yimby groups… There really is a feeling in the air that something has to be done.” Myers lives in a small mortgaged house in Camden, north London, but most of the group’s volunteers are private or social housing tenants and range from “the very young to retired grandparents”.

“The big problem with the housing crisis,” Myers told me, “the dirty little secret that politicians don’t like to talk about is that, actually, people quite like house prices to go up.”

In 2013, shortly after launching the Help to Buy scheme, the former chancellor George Osborne told the cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up” (the average London house now costs £484,362). Though the exorbitant price of housing (such that there are now more outright owners than mortgagors) has become an electoral problem for the Tories, homeowners remain an obstacle to development.

In a recent report for the Adam Smith Institute (“Yes In My Back Yard”), Myers made three proposals to win over this bloc: allowing individual streets to grant themselves planning permission to extend or replace buildings; permitting local parishes to develop “ugly or low amenity” sections of the green belt; and devolving planning powers to city-region mayors.

“There are ways to get support from local people for high-quality developments but we have a system right now that doesn’t try and get that support,” Myers said. “It just imposes measures from the top down.”

In some US cities, yimbys have antagonised anti-gentrification campaigners by supporting luxury developments. There is a tension between the aim of greater supply and that of greater affordability. Myers argued that it was crucial to have “clear rules on what percentage [of affordable housing] is required up front, so it gets priced into the land and taken out of the landowner’s pocket”.

The replacement of stamp duty with a land value tax, he added, would leave both “the buyer and the seller better off: the buyer doesn’t have to scrape a deposit together and the seller doesn’t have the price reduced by the amount of stamp duty”.

That some Conservatives are now prepared to consider previously heretical measures such as building on the green belt and borrowing £50bn for housing investment may herald a new era. The yimby bulldozer is beginning to dislodge the nimbys from their privileged perch. 

This article previously appeared in our sister title, the New Statesman.

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