A pre-election morale booster from Mr Byers

Stephen Byers’ announcement this week of £54m for a new Regional Innovation Fund is notable for the way in which he delivered the news.

At last, the message appears to be getting through. Stephen Byers’ announcement this week of £54m for a new Regional Innovation Fund is notable not so much for the sums of money involved (only £15m is actually new money) but for the way in which he delivered the news.

For once, we heard the Secretary of State describe manufacturing’s position as the UK’s ‘most dynamic sector’. Manufacturing is vital, he told a conference on Tuesday, to our ability to compete in the future, and is a vital part of our wealth creation process.

At their best, he went on, our manufacturing companies are forward looking, investing in new technologies and equipment, providing world-class skills and training to their workforce, winning new markets and new opportunities.

What’s remarkable about this speech is that it took place at all. For once, Byers has managed to get behind world-class, innovative manufacturing companies and say that the economy needs more companies like them.

It is easy to be cynical. There is an election looming. The government has had to stand by helplessly while major manufacturers close down plants with devastating effects on regional economies, and on the lives of people voting in marginal constituencies.

Even this week, the nation has been bracing itself for more bad news from Nissan (which now looks set to invest in Sunderland) and Corus, adding more anxiety and gloom to communities in south Wales and the north-east.

In the light of all this, the apparent turnaround in sentiment at Westminster to our industries is unsurprising. Even so, it is a positive move.

The new Regional Innovation Fund, with its more sensible split between regions, marks an acceptance by the government that there are sectors and regions that still need better targeted help.

And if Byers continues in this vein, who knows what will result? You could even see the future of manufacturing becoming a significant election issue in the months to come.

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