Strategy over slogans

November 8, 2021

As the Government presses on with its ‘Build Back Better’ campaign, Steven Hugill thinks the time has come for the talk to stop and the palpable action to begin.

Words by Steven Hugill.

When do you reach the point that enough becomes enough?

Is it when your country’s Prime Minister appears in a bizarre grainy video campaign holding a dimpled pint glass and exclaiming his intention to ‘build back bitter’?

Is it when said Prime Minister, blond hair typically tousled, stabs a little too enthusiastically with his fork at a portion of fish and chips in another clip, before promising to ‘build back batter’?

Or, is it, in yet another performance, when he slathers butter on a slice of toast (the sound of knife scratching across bread fitting for the scraping of the pun barrel) and accompanies his routine with the phrase ‘build back butter’?

Yeah, that’s more than enough.

Handy buzz-phrases have long been part of Government rhetoric, and the current regime’s ‘Build Back Better’ is merely a continuation of what has gone before.

But there comes a time when these slogans, and associated promises of levelling-up the country, must be followed by tangible action.

To build back better – or bitter, or batter, or butter, or even beaver, as the Prime Minister announced during his recent party conference speech – requires the laying of a solid base.

And that bedrock must come swiftly for a country – and there in the North East – still clambering its way out of a pandemic whose genesis across the UK, cross-party MPs last month said, was catalysed by a vacillatory Government approach.

It must feature a fiscal plan – Chancellor Rishi Sunak was due to lay out his Autumn Budget as North East Times went to print – which factors in measures to cover higher inflation, particularly in a landscape where September’s 0.1 per cent dip in the cost of living is widely expected to be mere temporary relief amid an increase in the energy price cap, the partial reversal of VAT reductions for hospitality and tourism operators and ongoing supply chain disruption.

It must set a vision for future growth of the economy, which despite increasing 0.4 per cent in August, thanks to a hit
of post-pandemic consumer spending on holidays and restaurant and pub excursions, remains 0.8 per cent smaller than it was before the health crisis.

It must, too, set out a robust support framework for the millions on low incomes affected by the recent removal of the £20 Universal Credit uplift, which organisations, such as Citizens Advice, have warned will push a good number of people into debt.

The Government’s plan must also feature an understandable Brexit roadmap that provides our many exporters with clarity and routes to fresh opportunities.

With figures last month showing UK business with the EU stood £1.8 billion worse off than it did three years ago, a decisive, forward-looking strategy that ensures companies can forge ahead again, rather than seeing trade ties knotted in complicated customs processes and costly new tariffs, is imperative.

And this approach must include concerted action on labour shortages.

The paucity of HGV drivers, as highlighted during headline-grabbing fuel shortages and a subsequent container logjam at ports including Felixstowe, only emphasises the necessity for speedy action on plugging skills gaps.

Downing Street has responded, with a recent relaxation on the number of supply chain deliveries overseas drivers can make, leaving the Chancellor “confident there’ll be a good amount of Christmas presents available for everyone to buy”.

Ministers have also promised to make up to 50,000 more HGV tests available every year in a bid to drive forward numbers behind wheels.

But, as many business groups point out – and as Caroline Moody, managing director at Cramlington-based Moody Logistics and Storage told this magazine last month – the measures are mere sticking plasters to a situation that requires full-scale surgical intervention.

Away from the cabs and forecourt frustrations, skills form another part of the Government’s must-do list. Vacancies may have hit 1.1 million between July and September, the highest since records began in 2001, but finding people for roles, say campaign groups, remains tough, owing to talent shortages and a lack of overseas workers.

Furthermore, as the Government rolls out its planned ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ it says will deliver and support up to 250,000 jobs, the transition of Whitehall’s Skills for Jobs white paper into reality is vital.

Promising to reshape post-16 education, it wraps around the Prime Minister’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee that pledges to invert the existing training model so employers’ needs across sectors including clean energy come first, with learners able to reskill and upskill at any stage of their lives.

For our region, the necessity of its fruition is incredible as our commercial environment, from the mouth of the Tees to the open spaces of Northumberland, continues to attract low carbon developments.

From Britishvolt’s planned 3000-job Northumberland vehicle battery-making plant, to Nissan and Envision AESC’s project to do the same on Wearside – while delivering a new all-electric vehicle – to an Equinor Dogger Bank wind farm maintenance base at the Port of Tyne and Teesworks’ GE Renewables turbine blade making factory, the North East is increasingly playing a crucial part in the net-zero agenda.

And as these schemes, and many others, come online, ensuring access to a deep and rich talent pool of fresh workers will be imperative to their respective long- term success.

We’ve had the political slogans. Now it’s time for action.