Meera was a Special Adviser to Grant Shapps when he was Transport Secretary and before that, Chief of Staff to Mayor Andy Street.
The last few months have been dominated by commentary around pursuing economic growth and increasing competition in the private sector.
Despite the upcoming economic challenges, there are tools in the Government’s box which can shift the dial on our productivity and help us remain competitive in Europe. The fact that capital budgets and R&D funding were largely protected in the Autumn Statement shows that ministers recognise that investment is needed to kickstart growth after this economic downturn.
One of the tools is clearly legislation: for example the Competition Bill, co-sponsored by BEIS and DCMS, could seek to create an environment which creates the conditions for new ideas and new entrants particularly in the digital arena. The exam question is: how do we incubate the next Google in the UK?
There are challenges of course, not least parliamentary time, developing a strong cross-departmental consensus, and ensuring consumer rights are protected. But such a Bill could be delivered before the next election, helping us compete with jurisdictions like Israel, which has established a successful start-up ecosystem.
Other pieces of legislation already in train include the Retained EU Law Bill, introduced under the previous government. The Bill will see a close examination, in the next year, of 2400 pieces of retained EU law.
Many of them won’t be changed, especially where international alignment is needed in areas like international aviation standards, but there is a clear opportunity more generally to deregulate and apply a common-sense approach to new legislation. Ultimately the purpose of the Bill is to cultivate Brexit opportunities and create a more competitive British market.
The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill would see new devolution deals struck with regions across England. Localised decision-making over supply-side issues like transport, housing, and skills means that a regional economic plan can be created and implemented.
Clearly, there is a role for central government to check that the plan is working, and make adjustments accordingly, and there is also the imperative to ensure the devolution deals are set up to push growth and increase regional competitiveness. As Andy Street always says: “I don’t want to compete with Manchester and Liverpool, I want to compete with Barcelona and Boston”.
The devolution deals being negotiated by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities must (and hopefully will) have this goal of furthering international competitiveness in mind.
Apart from planned and existing legislation, there is also the opportunity to create long term supply-side strategies.
It’s a breath of fresh air when the Prime Minister says he wants to focus his energies on improving our education system. Education and training can improve labour productivity, which is especially important given we have a productivity gap per hour worked with our European neighbours, particularly France and Germany.
A gear change in the provision of technical education is needed. The Government’s T-levels programme has started well and had a good review by Ofsted this Autumn, but it will take time for employers to accept the new qualifications at scale, and this will only happen as they become more prevalent.
The Government will also be looking into skills more generally, especially adult skills, technical qualifications and the apprenticeship levy to drive growth and we should expect more from the Prime Minister on this in the coming months.
Finally on the supply side, in the Department for Transport there are several areas where pro-growth work has already been done in areas such as self-driving vehicles and space regulation. Another that is in increased focus again is the rail sector. Railway strikes are back on the headlines and on our minds this winter, with railway and associated staff threatening to stage a series of walkouts over Christmas, aiming to create maximum disruption for the holiday period.
The Government has to consider how it averts the strikes but also on longer term workforce planning and efficiency savings on the railways. The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, launched last year, outlined the need for finding efficiencies combined with more private sector involvement, particularly in digital services, ticketing, and increased route competition through open access.
There is the opportunity to implement the reforms now with a view to maximising private sector involvement, something the rail minister will be looking closely at. Reducing union grip on the railways is also being delivered through the minimum services legislation introduced by the previous government.
So far, the Government has been focusing on mitigating the impact of the current economic hardship. But beyond that ministers are also pushing ahead with long-term legislation and frameworks to ensure that, after the economic downturn, we have laid the foundations for businesses and investors to stay in the UK and grow their operations here.
Creating a pro-growth and pro-competition environment is important for our future economic survival. There is not long to go until the next election and much to do.