Lord Mair debates involving the Cabinet Office during the 2019 Parliament

Industrial Strategy

Lord Mair Excerpts
Thursday 1st February 2024

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Lord Mair Portrait Lord Mair (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for securing this debate, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Rosenfield on his excellent maiden speech. I will make two points: the first on the timescale and continuity of government funding for any sort of industrial strategy or growth plan, and the second on the acute national shortage of engineering skills, limiting the success of such plans.

First, in November the Government announced £4.5 billion of funding for the manufacturing sector. Eight key sectors have been identified: automotive, aerospace, and life sciences, and five sectors in the all-important clean energy industry—carbon capture, utilisation and storage; electricity networks; hydrogen; nuclear and offshore wind. These are undoubtedly all key sectors for our economy, and such funding is of course very welcome. To harness the all-important underpinning science and technology most effectively, the UK requires a robust and consistent strategy for industry.

However, at the same time it was also announced that this funding for manufacturing would be available from 2025 for only five years. Without a commitment to a longer pipeline of funding, this does not constitute an industrial strategy; it is surely no more than a temporary fix. As has been pointed out in this debate, Make UK, a body representing the manufacturing industries, has emphasised that

“Every other major economy, from Germany, to China, to the US, has a long-term national manufacturing plan”.


“Long-term” in this context means beyond five-year political cycles; it means longer-term budgets and durable institutions. It means a stable pipeline to enable the UK’s world-renowned research and innovation system to deliver and provide confidence for businesses to thrive.

Secondly, there is a huge importance of the need for engineering skills. Here I declare an interest as an engineer, both in practice and in academia, over the past 50 years. In its recent report, Engineering Economy and Place, the Royal Academy of Engineering finds that the total engineering economy contributes up to an estimated £646 billion of direct GVA annually to the UK economy—over 30% of total economic output.

Of the eight million people working in the engineering economy, 70% are engineers, yet there remains an acute shortage of engineering skills, which must be addressed. A recent report led by the Institution of Engineering and Technology

“estimated there is a shortfall of over 173,000 workers in the STEM sector”.

It called on the Government to help to tackle the UK’s engineering skills shortage by embedding engineering into the current school curriculum. As mentioned by my noble friend Lord Aberdare, this is consistent with the findings of the recent inquiry of this House’s Committee on Education for 11 to 16 year-olds. There is a substantial untapped resource of future engineers and engineering apprentices in our schools. We need to address this urgently and plug the skills gap.

In summary, any strategic support of manufacturing must resist any quick-fix approach and instead focus on a long-term pipeline. We need a planned industrial strategy and, to be effective, it must address the acute shortage of engineering skills.

Preparing for Extreme Risks (RARPC Report)

Lord Mair Excerpts
Thursday 12th January 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

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Lord Mair Portrait Lord Mair (CB)
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My Lords, it was a privilege to be a member of this House’s Select Committee on Risk Assessment and Risk Planning under the expert and excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot. We all welcome the Government’s positive and constructive response to our report, accepting most of our recommendations. We also welcome the publication last month of the UK Government Resilience Framework, already referred to in this debate by a number of noble Lords. Much of this embraces the key principle of strengthening our national resilience that we emphasised in our report. I will speak on the essential need for preparedness and resilience in the context of our critical national infrastructure, emphasising the crucial role of new technologies and data in achieving this.

We all rely hugely on electricity and the internet, but we are vulnerable to cascading failures that could proliferate rapidly and cause widespread devastation. Important interdependencies that exist across risks have been identified by the Royal Academy of Engineering in its influential 2021 report, Critical Capabilities: Strengthening UK Resilience. Understanding these interdependencies is crucial and calls for systems thinking. Where infrastructure systems fail, the effects often cascade, knocking out critical services. An example is the flooding of Lancaster during Storm Desmond in 2015, which led to the loss of electricity supply to 61,000 properties, the situation returning to normal only after six days. The loss of electricity resulted in loss of communications and internet signal. The hospital had back-up generators and fuel for 14 days, but A&E became the first port of call for many when access was lost to 111, GPs and pharmacies. Other care facilities such as nursing homes did not have back-up generators. Schools closed and faced a challenge of communication with parents. Retail was disrupted, with only a few ATM machines working. Water and sewerage were disrupted in the more modern buildings, since they also relied on electricity. This case illustrates just one example of the vulnerability of infrastructure and society to loss of electricity and the resulting cascading effects.

In its Global Risks Report 2020, the World Economic Forum places the failure of critical infrastructure among the top 10 risks to the global economy. There are tragic examples of the risks caused by deterioration of infrastructure and lack of maintenance. The I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, collapsed in 2007 without warning during evening rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145, involving over 100 cars. The bridge was only 40 years old. The Morandi Bridge in Genoa, which was only around 50 years old, collapsed during a summer rainstorm in 2018, killing 43 people. Both bridges badly needed design checks and maintenance. Neither bridge was equipped with sensors to give warning of deterioration or change in behaviour. Availability of such data would almost certainly have prevented the collapses.

Closer to home, there was a major infrastructure incident at the Toddbrook Reservoir in 2019, when a period of heavy rainfall triggered a partial collapse of the dam spillway. A complete breach would have presented a grave threat to life for those in the nearby town of Whaley Bridge. Some 1,500 people were temporarily evacuated from their homes. Professor David Balmforth, who led an independent review into the incident, gave evidence to our committee. He concluded that the dam spillway failure was due to both poor design and incomplete maintenance. The incident was clearly a near miss and highlights the need to quantify the progress of infrastructure degradation and prioritise spending accordingly. Our report recommended the creation of an appropriate depreciation register for critical national infrastructure that identifies ageing infrastructure. Will the Minister confirm that the Government support this recommendation?

The emphasis on risk assessment should increasingly be on preparedness and resilience. In the context of critical national infrastructure, innovative technologies now exist for obtaining the necessary data to achieve this. We are in a digital revolution. Fibre-optic sensing and wireless sensor networks, together with imaging from drones and satellites and the use of AI, provide rich sources of data on the engineering performance of key parts of our infrastructure, especially where it is ageing. This is particularly applicable to nuclear power stations, dams, flood defences, water and gas pipelines, railways infrastructure, tunnels and bridges. Combined with good modelling and “what if” experiments, such technologies are a much-needed, cost-effective investment to improve the degree of preparedness and resilience relating to our critical national infrastructure.

Budget Statement

Lord Mair Excerpts
Friday 12th March 2021

(3 years, 2 months ago)

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Lord Mair Portrait Lord Mair (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I apologise for the problems with technology.

I speak as an engineer and will make three points. First, a number of the Chancellor’s announcements will be welcomed by the construction and infrastructure sectors. Investing in infrastructure drives long-term productivity improvements. In the short-term, it is a major stimulus of economic activity. The expectation that the new UK infrastructure bank will help support £40 billion-worth of infrastructure is especially welcome. The bank can play a crucial role in catalysing investment in projects to support economic recovery and meet net zero requirements.

Secondly, skills and innovation are emphasised in the Budget. The Government’s ambitions on net zero, infrastructure and digitalisation are threatened if the UK does not have the required number and diversity of people with engineering and technical skills to deliver. New initiatives have been announced for infrastructure, especially in relation to green stimulus programmes, modern methods of construction and digitalisation. These will involve welcome new employment opportunities, but they require extensive technical training, upskilling and reskilling. To achieve this, the UK must now plan for its long-term engineering and technical skills need, with an education system fit for the future.

Thirdly, net zero by 2050 must be a major priority, not least for the construction industry. The Construction Leadership Council has recently announced ConstructZero, a cross-industry change programme to drive carbon out of all parts of the construction sector. This includes maximising modern methods of construction, increasingly employing off-site manufacture, innovative sensing technologies and digitalisation. All this will need more smart engineering. We will need a lot more young engineers.