As a COVID second wave looms on the horizon and the deadline for a Brexit deal steams speedily into view, it is understandable that government’s focus is overwhelmingly given over to tackling these all-consuming challenges.
However, beyond mitigating these issues and rectifying the missteps and problems that have arisen as part of the UK’s pandemic response, it is important not to lose sight of the government’s wider agenda and its key drivers. After all, this is an administration that has an 80 seat majority and that wants to use this to drive reform across the UK.
In particular, three ‘projects’ sit behind much government thinking, namely Projects Birch, Speed and Defend. Their influence can be seen across the government’s developing agenda.
Of the three, Project Birch has been most in the public eye. Forming part of HM Treasury’s economic response to COVID-19, Birch is part of the government’s bailout plan with the state effectively taking stakes in strategically important businesses at risk of collapse. To date, much of the discussions between businesses and HMT have, understandably, been behind closed doors and only one deal has been agreed, thus far. Critics of the scheme have pointed to the onerous stipulations and demands that HMT is placing on businesses in return for agreeing a bailout. It is interesting to note that many of these requirements have centred around pushing businesses in the direction of a stronger and quicker contribution to Net Zero ambitions. To an extent Birch is being used as a bargaining tool in driving a greener and more sustainable future. That the government is willing to take this approach when negotiating rescue packages for strategically important companies demonstrates how central it remains to the longer-term agenda of this administration.
Much more below the radar, but informing policy in equally important ways are Projects Speed and Defend. Speed is focused around an Infrastructure Delivery Taskforce, with HMT aiming to reduce the barriers to infrastructure development and ultimately speed up the processes by which things get built across the country. Evidence of this thinking has permeated recently published proposals to reform the planning system – which aim to simplify and speed up the process by which permission is granted for development. Linked to this, we eagerly await the publication of the devolution white paper – with local government reform supposedly in the government’s crosshairs. Suggestions of moving to a single tier local authority structure or driving further adoption of combined authorities and mayoral systems have been bandied around over the summer. Again, this process is seen through the prism of improving accountability, streamlining governance structures and ultimately speeding up decision-making across the country.
Partly borne out of the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges it brought to light, Project Defend is bubbling away behind the scenes looking at how UK supply chains and manufacturing can be reformed to become more secure and reliable. The pandemic exposed just how fragile some global supply chains can be (PPE shortages being a high-profile case in point). BEIS’s recently published R&D Roadmap and the Comprehensive Spending Review’s explicit focus on making the UK a ‘scientific superpower’ should be seen in this light, looking at how the UK can develop the industries, the clusters and supply chains across life sciences, medtech and advanced manufacturing more widely to improve its resilience in the future.
Of course, the success of these agendas all depends on how willing the government is prepared to push. Realistically how politically expedient will it be hold out on stipulations regarding bailout funds for businesses employing thousands? Is the government willing to take on backbench Conservative MPs and shire local authority leaders in driving through pro-development policies and restructuring local government? How does a focus on securing supply chains and possibly onshoring manufacturing sit with Global Britain ambitions?
None of this should detract from the centrality of these agendas to the direction of travel under this Conservative administration. Businesses across a range of sectors need to keep this in mind when engaging with policymakers and in understanding changes that will impact their operations.