As the dust settles on the government reshuffle, it is time for us to refocus on the enormous challenge of the year ahead. This is shaping up to be a very important year for the future of both our cities and our country. It will be the year we decide our relationship with Europe for years to come – as well as the relationship we have with the rest of the world. It will be the year the new industrial strategy sinks or swims. It will be a year when our public services get support and adapt, or where the strain will cause some of them to crack.
It is our choice whether we seize the opportunity ahead, or risk drifting into a spiral of low productivity and low wages. As Key Cities we believe this year can be a success if we align our Brexit deal with an industrial strategy that advances our competitiveness in key sectors.
The cities we represent – which have shown greater resilience since the financial crisis ten years ago – are ideally placed to take this forward. They are at the cutting edge of manufacturing, many generating critical export earnings for Britain.
We also represent areas with leading universities and we work hard to pioneer collaboration across business and academia. Drawing on that experience, we can see that at this critical time it is essential to make sure that all policies, efforts and activity work together – across sectors and geographies – and don’t cross purposes with each other.
The industrial strategy identifies four “Grand Challenges” that Britain will have to face in the decades to come: artificial intelligence and big data; clean growth; the future of mobility; and meeting the needs of an ageing society. A good Brexit deal will support and promote these ambitions. In practical terms, if we want the industrial strategy to support advanced manufacturing to lead the world in artificial intelligence and zero-carbon technologies, we also need to a Brexit deal that supports collaboration and global market access.
At the same time, if we want to use Brexit to expand our global exports, we need to use the industrial strategy to strengthen outward-looking, competitive industries. Many of those are in Key Cities. British infrastructure will require major investment to support export growth in the post Brexit world. We think our competitive industrial centres need better access to ports for a start, and these ports need significant investment in technology to facilitate the frictionless trade needed by manufacturing.
The same applies to the way we support our public services. To make Brexit work, our schools, our health service, and housing all need investment. The referendum sent us a message that many communities felt no one listened to them, and that they had no opportunities for a better life. Extra money for research and development, and training, in the industrial strategy was a good place to start. Money into our schools so our young people are prepared for the jobs of the future would be very welcome. Spending on infrastructure so those jobs are within reach is another step. Funding for local councils to build strong, attractive vibrant places is another key.
This really is our year to start turning around a country which has become too unequal and too divided. Right now, our priorities should be higher productivity, better wages and stronger public services. To achieve that, Key Cities will work hard this year to get a common purpose across central government, local government, business, and academia. This is our year to achieve that – to support each other, to coordinate our plans and to realise our ambitions.
The government has said that getting Brexit right is its priority. Getting Brexit right will require more than a good negotiating team in Brussels. It will require working out an industrial strategy that makes us more competitive for the next phase of our relationship with Europe. It will require a deal that allows key sectors of the future, in Key Cities and beyond, to grow and flourish. If those clash, both will fail.
A successful Brexit will also require stronger public services to support our young people and give our communities hope. Without the investment, the opportunity will slide away, and we must not let it. This time, we should back our words with deeds.
Peter Box is leader of Wakefield council and chair of the Key Cities group.