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The week ahead: does the UK lack strategic thinking?

Britain suffers from a lack of long-term thinking, investment and political consensus when it comes to infrastructure. That was the finding of a report from the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) earlier this year that called for a comprehensive government strategy led by an independent commission, regional transport authorities and five-year budgets.

This week, the ICE will bring together policy makers, businesspeople and infrastructure experts to discuss the proposals and what else can be done to improve Britain’s transport systems at its conference UK transport: the engine for growth?

Taking place on Wednesday 25 September at the ICE headquarters, the conference will include speeches from the chief executive of HS2, Alison Munro, and the government’s chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander.

One of the biggest transport decisions facing the UK is how to expand airport capacity in the south east of England, and this week, as British Airways is scheduled to begin using its first Airbus A380 “superjumbo”, sees the deadline for comments on published submissions to the Airports Commission.

The Commission, led by economist Howard Davies, is examining various proposals for expanding airport capacity, including new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Standsted, plans to build better transport links between the existing airports and more radical ideas such as a new hub in the Thames Estuary.

But the government-appointed body came into controversy last week when the only member with experience of running an airport, former Manchester Airports Group (MAG) chief executive Geoff Muirhead, was forced to quit following MAG’s purchase of Stansted raising questions about his independence.

The chief executive of Gatwick Airport Limited, Stewart Wingate, yesterday told The Financial Times that that debate over airport capacity was narrowing to a choice between Heathrow and Gatwick because an Estuary airport would be too expensive.

He said was hoping to lure one of the big airline alliances based at Heathrow to Gatwick to further his airport’s cause, although it still wouldn’t become a fully fledged hub like Heathrow.

In the world of consumer electronics, Samsung is preparing to launch its Galaxy Gear smartwatch on Wednesday, making it the first wearable electronics product from one of the major manufacturers to hit stores.

It’s not a standalone device, however. Rather it’s a £300 way to access your smartphone or tablet without taking it out of your pocket. The Engineeris perhaps most excited about the function that will help you locate your phone when it’s disappeared down the back of the sofa.

In what is perhaps a more intriguing launch, Tesco has unveiled its own tablet computer. Though it’s amazing to think that it’s taken a supermarket to bring Britain into the 21st century electronics game, Tesco isn’t really taking on the likes of Apple and Samsung but rather has created a cheap (£119) device that it hopes will enable and encourage more people to use its online shopping services.

It’s also the Labour conference this week, and the manufacturers’ organisation EEF has welcomed the party’s plans to commission Jaguar Land Rover executive director Mike Wright to produce a comprehensive reiew of Britain’s manufacturing supply chain.

But Labour has already had something of a knockback after business organisations the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) attacked its plans to force companies hiring skilled non-EU immigrants to also take on more apprentices as unnecessary red tape and an ‘apprentice tax’.

The BCC director general, John Longworth, told The Guardian: ‘”There are far better ways to support employers to take on and train our young people. Let’s talk about the need for work skills in our schools, and incentives for companies taking on apprentices. And let’s talk about a proper points-based system to control levels of migration while ensuring we get the top-level skills we need to be competitive.’

He also said Britain’s banks were still failing to support small businesses and called for a state-backed business bank, giving the example of a UK firm developing a way to turn excess wind power into fuel that had to go for Germany for investment and will be moving its operations there as a result.

A government initiative to increase apprenticeships that has received industry backing, however, is the See Inside Manufacturing programme that is launching its automotive strand today in an attempt recruit an extra 7,600 apprentices and 1,700 graduates to the sector in the next five years.

Events throughout October will see young people considering their GCSE and A-level options taking factory tours and discussing career opportunities at a number of facilities across the country including those run by BMW, Ford, McLaren and Nissan.

Another partner is Jaguar Land Rover, which this week will outline its future innovation strategy, including details of a new research facility at Warwick University.

And finally, a piece of shameless self-promotion. On Tuesday, JLR is also hosting a “Battle of Ideas” panel discussion in partnership with the Institute of Ideas think-tank and events organiser.

A panel that includes myself, Warwick Manufacturing Group’s Dr James Meredith and writer and comedian Timandra Harkness will discuss the topic of “Barriers to Innovation” and answer questions from an audience of JLR staff. So if you work at JLR and want to hear insights from within the world of The Engineer (or take us to task) then this is your chance.

Readers' comments (7)

  • Barriers to Innovation?
    My many previous posts on this subject surely offer a clue to my thinking: which does not alter. Remove the recording/ describing/patrolling of innovation from the present patent agents (98% of their efforts are totally wasted and create no wealth) and place it where it belongs -in the appropriate professional institution. OR let PA's continue their monopoly, but only for a % of PROFITs generated. Job done.

    If we are thinking strategically?
    then immediately follow the two other innovative nations (interestingly the losing? sides in WWII) and resolve internal disputes from commerce and wherever inquisitorially.[The Court asks the questions] Not as at present we (and the USA) still do adversarially, still offering the opportunity for every dispute to make work for no less that five sets of clever, well educated, cunning persons, who presently maniopulate man's laws to the benefit of the highest payer? Such would release at least 75% of these persons to start wealth creation, not simply money manipulation? Pie in the sky?
    I sincerely believe nothing less will make those fundamental changes in our very ethos and nature as a society: which in perhaps 20 years would allow us to take a proper place in the international economic race/community, etc And that is a strategic thought to cap many others?
    Mike B

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  • well said Mike, and here's another one. Do not allow professional politicians to take up a position as an MP without a minimum of 5 years work in a proper job !

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  • Sir there is currently much debate about wealth creators among the political classes.
    Yet those self same classes believe wealth creators only exist in the Managerial and Financial layers of society.
    No one ever considers the real innovators and no one ever has since the 1960's, those individuals and teams who labour to bring something new into existence.
    Its not fashionable and considered high risk but what on earth do the politicians know? Try making a polite request for data held by government departments you believe may unlock a problem and enable the creation of something new and you are stonewalled.

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  • Mike dispenses common sense once again, but is anyone listening? Regrettably, at the appropriate levels in the UK, doubtful.

    My own two-pennorth is once again to tout the idea of a 'Strategic Technology Council' seconding a number of the the best and brightest of British engineering for, say, a 3 or 5 year term to be the sole arbiter of what is or is not beneficial for this country and its international standing. The Council pays their current wage and the law guarantees their old job back on completion of their term.

    Also mandated would be 'No political interference'.

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  • Danny Alexander giving a speech on HS2?
    What does he or any other politician know about infrastructure? Why should interested parties have to listen to what HE has to say as it is discoloured by party politics and short term thinking.
    I despair at this country - all that is happening is a wider gulf between the south east and the rest of the country.I live and work in a region the size of Belgium that has no motorways, a single track rail line and one large (ish)hospital to cover the entire area. Other parts of the UK are in a similar or worse situation so why is there never any effort to link all of us with either a motorway or rail system that runs the length of the whole country and then business growth can grow around it no matter what part of the UK you live in.
    It is no wonder that us up north view the whole thing with a very jaundiced eye!

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  • Power generation ownership;
    Water and Sewage ownership;
    Nuclear Power technology to be imported;
    Car production ownership;
    What planning???
    Without responsibility planning is easy and makes a good political football as with HS2.

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  • The whole issue focuses around money, and more importantly who makes the most profit from it. Most organisations focus solely on maximum profits for minimum input.

    As the UK still generates around 50% of the worlds new ideas and inventions, we should be rolling in investment cash, but short sighted focus on returns blight this. Most organisations only look at the short to medium returns and nothing else, yet Government has appeared to follow this lead, and look at some of the people they court.

    Alan Sugar is a prime example, a self proclaimed idiot who publicly vilifies engineers, yet is still willing to pick up their ideas for a pittance and make massive profits for himself. What happens next, he ships them abroad for manufacture and imports back to the UK to the detriment of this country, yet Government hold him in high esteem.

    What is needed is a radical rethink and a change of public perception as most people don't even realise what engineers do.

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