Political Print: where’s the right royal welcome for the industrial strategy?

Prince Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markle stole the headlines from a crucial announcement for Britain’s future. By Nick Hughes.

It’s an enduring British media tradition (and frankly an enduring mystery to the Print) that royal events torpedo political events in the news cycle.

Take the launch of the government’s much-anticipated industrial strategy, which sank without trace on November 27th after Prince Harry chose the same morning to announce his engagement to Meghan Markle, thus ensuring blanket coverage for the future matrimony of a prince and an actress and a few nibs for a strategy that is set to chart Britain’s course through the fourth industrial revolution.

Such announcements don’t come out of the blue, of course, and it’s more than likely that No 10 was quite content for the impact of a critical policy launch to be neutralised by the hoopla over Harry and Meghan, such is the fog of paranoia shrouding British politics at present.

In the event, the strategy itself was reasonably well received within the business and environmental sectors. The British Chambers of Commerce welcomed “the sense of mission that infuses the industrial strategy”, while the thinktank Green Alliance gave a “cautious yes” to the question of whether the government had set the right priorities to deliver the long-term productivity growth that Britain needs.

The positioning of clean growth as one of four “grand challenges” that will transform the UK’s future is certainly to be welcomed and confirms that the central government has completed a shift in its collective mentality from one where environmental stewardship is seen as an impediment to economic growth to one which acknowledges that the latter cannot be sustained in the long term without the former.

The data doesn’t lie: the UK has cut emissions by more than 40% since 1990, during which period the economy has grown by two-thirds. The narrative that we must park green policies while we get the economy back on track has very few adherents left in Westminster.

As one of the UK’s most important industries in terms of employment and gross value added, the food industry – encompassing farming through to foodservice – will have a critical role to play in achieving the government’s stated aim of “helping businesses create better, higher-paying jobs in every part of the UK with investment in the skills, industries and infrastructure of the future”.

Food features periodically throughout the strategy without ever quite feeling central to the overall project. Most encouraging, arguably, is the creation of a Food and Drink Sector Council in which the government will work with industry leaders from agriculture, food and drink manufacturing, retail, hospitality and logistics “to secure the UK’s position as a global leader in sustainable, affordable, safe and high-quality food and drink”.

Ignore the broad-brush ambition for a moment, which is meaningless in the absence of further detail. For a government not renowned for its ability to do joined-up food policy, the recognition that an interconnected food chain exists is reason enough to be cheerful.

The problems with our current food system won’t be solved by setting farmers, manufacturers, retailers and caterers to work on different priorities and seeing them all pull in opposite directions. We need consistent, evidence-based policies that unite businesses at opposite ends of the food chain and create positive outcomes that benefit everyone. So long as it is has clear terms of reference and broad representation, a Food and Drink Sector Council must be a good starting point.

Elsewhere, a pledge to lead the development of the so-called “bio-economy” (the use of renewable biological resources from land and sea to produce food, materials and energy) is eye-catching. However, such progressive statements of intent are juxtaposed with a selection of pledges rehashed from past strategies that suffer from the absence of any detail on how they will be delivered.

One of the initial programmes under the Clean Growth Challenge is to transform food production to become more efficient and sustainable. Nothing to disagree with here, but we’ve heard the sentiment expressed countless times before by various government departments and their agencies.

Another pledge to increase the use of precision farming technologies formed the backbone of 2013’s agri-tech strategy, while a desire to drive innovation in food production while reducing emissions, pollution, waste and soil erosion is so generic it could have been cobbled together from any combination of government food and farming reports of the past 20 years.

There are further promises to raise the resource productivity of businesses, including through the promotion of recycling and strong secondary materials markets where products are designed with efficiency and recyclability in mind; and to work in partnership with food businesses from farm to fork through the Courtauld 2025 commitment to deliver a 20% per capita reduction in food waste by 2025. Again, all worthy stuff but nothing new.

But let’s be positive for a moment. It’s easy to be sceptical about these kind of overarching strategies, such is the rate at which they are churned out and then just as quickly disowned. But it’s equally important not to lapse into a permanent state of cynicism. Any government strategy runs the risk of becoming the victim of the five-year political cycle; however, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy says it will ensure this strategy will endure by creating an independent Industrial Strategy Council that will assess progress and make recommendations to the government.

In the next 12 months a host of critical policies will be announced with significant implications for food and the environment, including the agriculture bill, the 25-year environment plan and a new strategy for waste and resources. If the government can ensure that the objectives of these plans all align with the ambitions set out in its industrial strategy then – like Harry’s grandmother’s marriage – it might just stand the test of time.

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