The week ahead: does the UK lack strategic thinking?

Senior reporter

Labour offers ideas for boosting supply chains and apprentices, Tesco enters the technology business and engineers debate how to improve long-term infrastructure planning.

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.