Matthew Fell: Government alone cannot level up the UK. Business stands ready to help.

27 May

Matthew Fell is the CBI’s Chief UK Policy Director.

We have a chance to seize the moment. A once-in-a-generation opportunity, no less. A time to learn the lessons from the pandemic, grasp the net zero imperative and embrace the ever-accelerating pace of technological advancement. One where we can unite as a nation and transform the UK economy for the decade ahead.

We dare not repeat the mistakes of the past. In 2008, we fixed the financial system but forgot about much of the country. The result? A decade of anaemic growth, flatlining productivity and widening social inequality.

This time around we can do things differently. A collective effort from all parts of our society, and all corners of our nation, can overcome the challenges ahead of us. Levelling up opportunity and prosperity across in all regions and nations is a vital step in our journey back to economic health.

It won’t be easy. It is unlikely to be quick. But there may never be a better time to get started. In the words of Rachel Wolf of Public First, it is ‘time for levelling up to get real’.

That is why the CBI has this week published Seize The Moment, a bold blueprint for economic growth and shared prosperity over the coming decade. It is unabashed and unequivocal in its goal of transforming the way we live and work to build a better tomorrow.

The ambition is grand, but the prize is enormous: the potential to rebuild the UK as the most competitive, dynamic and future-focused economy in the world.

Our vision highlights the key areas for action, as well as the paths to success for each of these areas. Decarbonisation, trade, innovation, health and inclusivity are all identified as economic priorities, along with levelling up.

The CBI believes that for the UK to succeed in building a stronger future economy, it must erase the inequalities of the past. Any strategy which turns a blind eye to lingering pockets of deprivation and left-behind communities will undermine the very principle of the new future we strive for.

People’s life prospects must not be decided by geographical lottery. Everyone should have fair access to a good education, high quality skills training, meaningful employment opportunities – and the resulting benefits to income, health and housing.

Closing skills gaps could add £150 billion to gross value added by 2030. SME technology adoption, meanwhile, could add around £45 billion in output in the same time period. These are substantial prizes to work towards.

Let’s be clear, though: levelling up is not the responsibility of government alone.

Government has a big role to play, of course, at national, regional and local levels. But its role is largely one of facilitation, of laying the groundwork needed for society to thrive. This means establishing a business-friendly regulatory framework which rewards innovation and investment, and delivering modern, reliable infrastructure. Publishing the keenly-anticipated Levelling Up White Paper – with proposals for further devolution of power on skills, transport and R&D – will also be a big step.

What this does is create opportunities for enterprise to thrive – and it is the private sector which then ultimately drives up living standards through innovation and growth, the creation of new and better jobs, by raising wages and boosting skills.

Across the UK’s regions and nations, leaders in local government and business know best the challenges to overcome, and, crucially, the strengths to build on. They must be empowered to do so.

For the CBI, it is this idea of playing to individual strengths which holds the key to levelling up. In our view, it is time to move away from the failed cookie cutter approach of the past. Understanding what makes our regions and nations special, and harnessing those qualities, can enable every part of the UK to forge its own competitive proposition.

The CBI has a central role to play in all this, by deploying its convening power – across businesses of all sizes, universities, colleges, research organisations, politicians, and civic leaders – to assemble business-led coalitions, developing knowledge and sharing best practice on how to scale-up these economic clusters.

Building distinctive regional comparative advantage in this way can be the game-changer, and trigger a virtuous circle of investment and revival. Successful economic clusters attract more leading-edge businesses, and high-skilled workers. Specialist supply chains evolve, along with opportunities for shared facilities and productivity gains, with spill-over benefits for sectors like retail, leisure and hospitality.

This form of self-sustaining eco-system is what brings levelling up to life – but it can only succeed through partnership. Genuine union between public and private sector, working in tandem, will be essential to plot a trajectory beyond the crisis of Covid towards a prosperous, levelled-up UK. Let’s start right now. Let’s transform our economy. Let’s Seize the Moment.