What we want from No. 11

A letter to the next Chancellor of the Exchequer, to be opened on 6 May, 2005. Subject: engineering and technology. Priority: high.

Dear Mr. Brown/Letwin/AN Other (delete as appropriate):

Here at The Engineer we know that you have a lot on your plate right now. If the general election has produced a surprise, you’re probably still busy moving the furniture into Number 11.

But we hope you will soon be able to turn your attention to our engineering and technology base because, as we are sure you are aware, in this respect the UK is facing both opportunities and threats to an extent possibly unparalleled in its recent history.

Just before the election Anne Campbell, the Labour MP for Cambridge, called for more government support for technology-based start-up businesses based on the US model.

The Engineer has supported these proposals before, and makes no apology for returning to them at the start of a new term of government.

Gordon Brown’s last budget of the previous term contained plans to compel public agencies to direct at least 2.5 per cent of their external R&D spending to small and medium-sized businesses.

This is to be welcomed, but is only a start. As Campbell, with the support of private funding providers such as TTP Ventures, has pointed out the US has developed a ruthlessly efficient machine for finding, backing and adopting new technologies and scientific advances.

Our own civil service seems rather creaky and ad hoc by comparison. We need a properly structured relationship between those developing the UK’s most promising technologies and the government departments that could benefit from them.

That would give our engineers and technologists the breathing space they need to get their ideas out of the laboratory and refined to a stage that may interest the wider commercial community.

We know that spending taxpayers’ money wisely was a major theme of the election.

We know that if Mr Letwin is reading this, he will already be preparing to take an axe to large swathes of the UK’s quangos. We know that state aid is a thorny issue. At the time of writing, the Labour government was agonising what, if any, support it should give MG Rover in a bid to secure a life-saving deal with a Chinese partner — a depressingly defensive situation reminiscent of the darkest days of the 1970 car industry.

But if you are going to create one new body, make it a highly-focused small business R&D unit along US lines. Let it sort the wheat from the chaff, and use UK taxpayers’ money to back the success stories of tomorrow.

And good luck for the next four years. You’ll need it.

Andrew Lee