In the national interest

LEP chair ANDY WOOD, who is also CEO of Adnams, argues against short-termism and in favour of a consistent approach from Government on energy. If we don’t manage it, the opportunity of a lifetime could be lost, he warns

IN June, the local enterprise partnership for Norfolk and Suffolk launched its Green Economy Pathfinder.

This was something initiated with the Coalition Government with the aim of understanding how the UK economy might transition to a more sustainable future. At the launch I talked of the need for Government to be bold about this transition to a greener, cleaner and fairer future. A future that will underpin sustainable economic growth and provide many employment opportunities for the people of Norfolk and Suffolk along the way.

It has been well documented that our existing and creaky energy infrastructure is going to come under severe pressure in the next few years and in its current form is critically ill equipped to cope with the needs of a modern energy hungry economy. Add to this the geopolitical risks and price volatility associated with our energy coming from some of the most unstable parts of the world and there is a compelling case for change. Nuclear power will necessarily be part of that change as will renewables. This is where the great opportunity lies for our area as power generation moves from old and tired smoke stack power stations in the centre of the country to the coast - our coast. This is where the opportunity lies for thousands of jobs, new skills and the promise of long term economic prosperity.

In order for this to be delivered we need the Government to be consistent with its support for these industries to enable the required private sector investment to flow. No modern economy can operate without the public and private sectors understanding and respecting each other and working together in the long term national interest. We have seen massive state intervention to prop up the dysfunctional financial system and successive Governments have subsidised the fossil fuel industries for many years. What we need is clear and consistent Government support for these new industries and new jobs. If we do not do it, others will and the potential jobs and an opportunity of a lifetime will be lost to other countries that ring the southern North Sea. If Government takes short term decisions investment will not happen and a more balanced, secure and modern energy infrastructure will not materialise.

This view is supported no less by the ex CEO of BP Lord Browne of Madingly in the following extract from an article published in 2009 he said “We must fundamentally rethink the objective of energy policy in this country”. He compared the current need for urgent investment and new infrastructure with efforts to develop North Sea oil and gas fields in the 1970s and 1980s. He went on to say “High oil prices provided a strong market pull. But governments also gave industry a helping hand, creating generous tax incentives and regulations, and helping to build strategic infrastructure”. Finally he said “There’s even more cause for government intervention today. That’s because energy security and climate change mitigation are public goods. They would not otherwise be recognised by the free market.”

Failure to invest in the short term can be disguised but is disastrous in the long term as we are so obviously beginning to experience across so many parts of the UK infrastructure. The same applies to investment in research and development and skills. Unemployment amongst young people stands at 1m and rising, this is nothing short of a catastrophe. These new industries have long term potential and could be employing people who have yet to start school. We need to better link the education system with the needs of industry and we need to do it now. By many international comparisons we continue to fall well short. To illustrate this, in Germany there are some 40 apprenticeships per 1000 employees, in the UK there are around 11, for the sake of our young people and economic progress we cannot and should not allow ourselves to fall further behind.

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I spend a reasonable amount of time in Germany as we work closely with a family owned German brewer a classic mid-sized ‘Mittlestand’ company. It is clear to me, as a visiting business person, that Germany has an industrial strategy as well as an economic strategy and this is applied with enormous consistency of purpose. The UK by contrast has a mixture of no policy or one that is subject to change at a moments notice costing jobs and damaging whole industries. If we are going to improve we need to do better and provide committed and consistent support to secure a better future. UK companies are no less innovative or creative that their German counterparts it is just that German companies work within a system that respects industry, that thinks long and hard about the future and is prepared to invest to secure that future. In contrast in the UK we focus not on the underlying industry but on short term results and the quarterly performance of fund managers. Something has to change.

Governments have an opportunity to do things differently if only they could be confident enough. The current economic crisis presents an opportunity for this Government to help us transition to a better future and provide many sustainable jobs on the way. Developing an industrial policy that provides consistency for investors and industry would seem a good place to start. This is the context within which support for new industries and new jobs should be set.

The Green Economy Pathfinder for Norfolk and Suffolk sets out 25 goals ranging from support for renewables through our role as part of the nations bread basket to making the best use of our natural capital. It highlights many innovative businesses that are already making progress despite the current difficult economic environment and uncertain approach. We have the makings of an industrial policy for Norfolk and Suffolk. Let’s hope Government can support us.

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