Business

Sir Tom Hunter: New economy plan is wish list for a magic wand we do not have

Earlier this week Kate Forbes published Scotland’s National Strategy for Economic Transformation. The introduction could have read ‘you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but we’ll give it a good go…’

The scope was breathtaking with six programmes and some 70 action plans apparently all to be delivered with ‘laser focus’. Now I’m not sure about you but a laser focus on 70 action plans is well beyond me. This looks to me like government micro-managing the economy and let’s face it their track record there is not great – set a regulatory framework and tax regime and let business get on with it.

This was a wish list begging for a magic wand that is not in our grasp; the lobbyists, politicians and vested interests have had their say and a panacea of 70 action plans awaits us if anyone can actually manage their delivery.

But to be fair there are key areas addressed here – entrepreneurship, education and productivity; patently they are key to our future success as a nation but we need targets, delivery plans and leadership across this, moreover it needs to be led by those that create the jobs. The appointment of an entrepreneurial champion is the right step forward but they need teeth and power.

Also lest we forget we made big wins in efficiency thanks, albeit sadly, to Covid in how public services are delivered and that to my mind is key in the productivity space.

Scotland has 579,400 public sector employees; Denmark 338,000; the latter being the second happiest place on earth with 400,000 more of a population and yet we have 75% of Denmark’s output per person.

Drive productivity in the public sector and we all win.

Equally we need to take hard decisions and back winners in the entrepreneurial space and, I am sorry but we need to disappoint businesses and the ideas that are not part of future economic growth by prioritising investment in winning sectors and technologies. We need to invest where we can go to scale, build industries of the future and equip the likes of the Scottish National Investment Bank with the firepower they need to be truly ambitious for Scotland.

Too often government write policies without consulting the people they actually effect; on paper they look great, in practice they either don’t work or are highly inefficient. Despite the Advisory Council supporting this economic strategy I simply think again this is another case in point.

To be clear this is about accountability – if I invest my money and get it wrong I lose it; what happens when politicians get it wrong?

Scotland needs far more scale-ups; it is them and simply them that move the economic dial. To get there you need a decent pipeline of high growth start-ups; to be clear its not the volume of high growths, it’s the quality of them. The majority of start-ups can look after themselves. So let’s have a laser focus on those two areas. And design the support agencies around their needs, not what the agencies currently deliver.

And in terms of that economic growth it absolutely needs a pipeline of talent. Rishi Sunak will shortly publish new guidelines enabling inbound immigrant talent to the UK to support scale-ups and that is fantastic news but we need our own talent pool too. And to deliver that we do need an enlightenment in our education sector to enable them to deliver the likes of the digital and tech skills needed now and for tomorrow.

And of course productivity across the public and private sectors is critical so point the laser focus on that area create a team to deliver it and get on with it.

I am an eternal optimist. It is my true belief within Scotland we have the talent, ideas and wit to build thousands of scale-ups and one hundred or more Unicorns – those alone would deliver the economic growth we need. To do that we need genuine public-private sector partnership that is fair, equitable and most importantly respectful of the knowledge and talent in both the private and public sectors.

Sir Tom Hunter is a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist

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