How Greater Manchester can lead the way on industrial strategy

Lisa Bowden.

Using recently devolved powers to improve decision making and economic planning, Greater Manchester finds itself in a pivotal position to develop a bespoke industrial strategy tailored to local needs, says Mace's Lisa Bowden.

If the recent industrial strategy white paper is to help build a country that works for everyone, we need to develop a much better understanding of where economic activity happens and why it happens in these places. For too long, the UK has been too reliant on a small number of places and industries to drive growth, particularly the financial services sector in London and the south east. 

Local industrial strategies 

Local industrial strategies provide an opportunity for cities, led by metro mayors such as Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham, to audit their economies, identifying key opportunities for growth. Doing so will enable city leaders to develop a laser-like focus on using recently devolved powers in areas such as post-secondary education to support the industries most important to the local economy. 

In fact, Greater Manchester is already a pioneer in this area, having developed the hugely influential Manchester Independent Economic Review (MIER) back in 2009. Just as the MIER identified the importance to the Manchester economy of high quality office space, public transport infrastructure, a skilled workforce and a housing policy to support the city’s growing population, a new local industrial strategy for Greater Manchester will emphasise the need to improve transport connectivity across the whole city-region, and utilise adult skills policy to promote lifelong learning and retraining.

Sector deals 

The industrial strategy also introduces bespoke deals for sectors considered particularly important to the UK economy. Of these, the construction sector deal is the most ambitious, aiming to improve performance in three main areas - procurement, innovation and skills. This commitment to develop construction skills for the future is crucial for the whole industry, but particularly for northern England as we aim to reverse the ‘brain drain’ of ambitious young graduates moving south after finishing their degrees. 

We need to encourage more young people to consider careers in construction, not just through the traditional apprenticeship route but also by encouraging people into management roles. It would be great to see more higher education institutions follow the University of Manchester’s lead in educating our sector’s future leaders, as it does through its Construction Project Management masters course.  

Transforming cities 

Another welcome inclusion in the white paper is the £1.7bn creation of a Transforming Cities Fund.  On top of the existing commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail and other major inter-city improvements, this fund represents a major step in fulfilling the vision of a Northern Powerhouse that is more than the sum of its parts. It is welcome to see renewed focus on the importance of linking suburbs and towns to the booming city centres of our biggest northern cities. In Greater Manchester, that means extending the Metrolink to Stockport, and improving ‘orbital’ connections between the outer boroughs. 

Perhaps the most striking element of the white paper is the government’s explicit commitment to “rebalance the economy”, with the creation of a ‘rebalancing toolkit’ promising to provide a more strategic approach to infrastructure investment and local growth. For cities like Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, local leaders will need to make the case loud and clear for transformational transport projects like Northern Powerhouse Rail. For Whitehall, it means appreciating the untapped potential that could be unleashed by improving connectivity in the north.  

Local knowledge

As UK cities develop their own local industrial strategies, Andy Burnham and other local leaders are able to draw on an already strong knowledge of what makes their local economies tick. The key for Greater Manchester, will be to ensure our most important sectors are connected and collaborating, driving innovation and growth. The MIER was an excellent starting point for this and has since paved the way to Greater Manchester’s devolution, showing how economic growth and autonomy can be achieved through robust planning.  

Yet there is still so much more that could be done.  For example, a local industrial strategy for Greater Manchester might even be so bold as to call for organisations that operate in those sectors with the strongest potential for leveraging further economic growth, i.e. engineering, transport and construction, to have much more autonomy and decision-making controls, in a similar way that powers might be granted to influential industries within a city state.   

By using the research of our internationally recognised universities and flourishing digital sector to promote new building methods in the construction industry, there is certainly plenty of potential to lead a new wave of development across the region, ensuring we are equipped for the next stages of the 21st century. 

Lisa Bowden is head of infrastructure north at Mace.