The government’s new industrial strategy needs to create a cultural transformation, as much as an economic one

Regional cabinets probably aren't going to fix this mess. Image: Getty.

It’s a chilly January day, and the government has just broken with its previous laissez-faire approach and announced a bold, interventionist plan to boost the UK’s economy at a time of great uncertainty.

But instead of it being Theresa May and Greg Clarke doing the speeches and media interviews, it was Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson. The year was 2010 – a time beyond the reach of human memory in today’s Twitter-driven politics. But look at the ideas and aims of the Labour government’s Going for Growth paper and they could well have been lifted straight out of a dusty filing cabinet by the wonk charged with writing May’s “new” strategy.

The truth is that numerous governments of every party colour have announced interventionist strategies of remarkable similarity for decades: big investment for infrastructure, funding for university research, support focused on the “sectors of the future” and teaching of the skills required by disruptive technologies. Harold Wilson made such an approach the very heart of his 1963 election campaign with the slogan the “white heat of technology”. Even the supposedly staunchly laissez-faire Margaret Thatcher did a heck of a lot of intervention.

Which raises a rather challenging question for this government. These sorts of policies have been tried so often in the past, yet have failed to address the UK’s very long-term problems of low productivity and regional economic imbalances. So why have they not worked before? And how can they be made to work this time?

There are two answers, I think.

The need for cross-party support

Firstly, there is the fact that these policies are often not followed through. We only need to look at very recent history with Brown and Mandelson’s industrial activism being seriously watered down by George Osborne as part of his austerity drive. Too often growth strategy is the victim of changes of government, minister or priorities.

The truth is that deep-set, long-term problems like productivity and economic imbalance can only be resolved with the application of consistent policies over decades not years. Germany’s much vaunted success in this area is not down to the originality of its policies, but the fact they have been applied consistently by a series of governments ever since 1945. One of the most successful sectors in the UK, our pharmaceuticals industry, has flourished because it has in effect been in receipt of activist support in the form of NHS contracts since the 1940s.

This is why if May is really serious about her goals she should spend as much time building a genuine consensus and commitment across the whole of the party spectrum as will be spent on implementing the policy itself. Of course that means opposition parties playing ball – and the Conservatives being willing to lose whatever electoral advantage they think they can achieve by making this new strategy a Tory idea. I fear we will have to live more in hope than expectation on those.

The creativity of people and communities

But what ultimately drives the innovation and competitiveness of a nation over the long-term is the same thing that drives the innovation and competitiveness of the best companies: the mind-set of its people. There needs to be a deep creativity, openness to change and powerful sense of self-determination embedded in communities across the UK. Big investment and infrastructure plans will only go so far if the country – or, more importantly, certain areas of the country – don't have the requisite restless entrepreneurial spirit.

This is where local government could play its most important role. Councils are far better placed than Whitehall mandarins to create a sense of transformational mission in a place and its people by working collaboratively with schools, colleges, local business, civil society organisations and cultural bodies. Councils have the knowledge and connections to nuance and promote such a message in a local context in a way Westminster never could.

This all sounds horribly fuzzy compared to ploughing billions into some new rail track. But as the increasingly influential economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey has spent a career pointing out, the last two and half centuries of remarkable innovation and growth were launched not by big plans from above, but by a cultural shift from below that made the entrepreneurial lifestyle and mind-set respectable and aspirational.

As McCloskey says, this was a shift that began in Britain – ironically, in the very same parts of the country that now struggle to break out of cycles of low productivity and growth. We must recapture that spirit across the whole of the country if this industrial strategy is not to go the way of previous industrial strategies.

Adam Lent is director of the New Local Government Network think tank.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.



Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.