8 Jul 2024

‘We will not be judged by the constraints and failures over the past 14 years’ – Science Secretary Peter Kyle

We are joined by Peter Kyle, newly appointed as the secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: We’ll come to your brief in a moment. But just on getting Britain building, how are you going to take the country with you? You’ve got a lot of very slim majorities. You could annoy people very quickly, couldn’t you?

Peter Kyle: We have just won an election with a substantial majority, and we didn’t hide what our intentions were when it came to building and getting Britain building again in the election. This is something we spoke about repeatedly all the way through it. And it was there, written in our manifesto, loud and clear. So actually, this isn’t just about selling this to the country. The country has just endorsed our manifesto and our approach to this, but we are going to do so with a resolution using the power and authority that comes with central government. But as you heard there, we will always, always give local areas, local authorities, the first chance to get this right. We see this as a partnership between different layers of government. We all have our role to play in this. Local areas must be in control of where housing and other infrastructure items are built. But there are some times that there are just local obstacles to get it done. In those circumstances, you will find an assertive central government as we step in to try and break down those barriers. Sometimes local authorities will be asking us to do so because they have too many barriers locally.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: So you will sometimes override concerns. We also saw in Helia’s piece the start of the building industry objecting to the sort of onerous requirements you’re going to put on them to build social housing and saying, ‘Well, can’t be done and still make a profit’. In the past, we’ve seen governments weaken the demands on developers. Do you promise you won’t be doing that?

Peter Kyle: We have high expectations. We are going to create and build 1.5 million new homes. What we’re not going to do is have some parts, not all parts but some parts, of the developer community, for want of a better expression, coming to us and saying they want it better. Actually, we are talking about making sure we create the circumstances, breaking down the barriers to developers coming in and developing good quality homes right from the outset of this government. So they should be out there seizing the opportunities that we are creating, not out there saying ‘We want more, more, more’. Now come to us when there are specific challenges, and we will try and be a partner to breaking down those challenges. But our country needs new homes. It needs new social homes, it needs new infrastructure, whether that be labs for science and life sciences, whether that means data centres for the digital infrastructure of the future. This is a government that will break down those barriers and make sure we can get our country fit for the future.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: Let’s come to your department. You said today that you’re an economic department now, in science and technology. Of course, the impact of Brexit has been very damaging for science in Britain, and we’ve only just got back into the Horizon scheme. How are you going to make up for that lost ground and turn science into an economic powerhouse?

Peter Kyle: When you go back to those dark periods where the government landed us with a terrible Brexit deal and yanked us out of the Horizon programme, which meant that scientists in this country could collaborate and work incredibly productively with scientists elsewhere and institutions similarly. Of course, that has been returned to a degree now. But, luckily, we have a very resilient world-class scientific community here. We have the Crick Institute, we have a university sector that’s very mature, and we have great partnerships between the private sector and public research institutions. What we’re talking about now is building upon that, because we want to make sure that that is part of our economic development programme. So we’ve already announced a regulatory innovation office, which I’ll be getting off the ground in short order. That will expedite innovations through the regulatory landscape so we can get out there and benefit the health of the nation and economic growth quickly. We’re going to review planning. We’re going to make sure we have a regulation update as well, and we’re going to make sure that we’re building more labs and data centres going forward. So these are the things we can do straight away to really capture. And of course, we’ve announced in the last 24 hours that Patrick Vallance, the former chief scientific officer, is coming into government as a science officer to make sure he can use his wisdom and experience to turbocharge and be the partner that the sector needs to get this sector really rocketing. We will become an economic department in DSIT.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy: Essential to science is the universities. When will they get their settlements from government, and know whether they can all survive?

Peter Kyle: It’s not just the economic settlement that is the issue. Now, the department I’m responsible for funds the research side of universities, and it’s crucial funding. We want to make sure we can make better use of the existing funding out there. So we’re moving from one to three year funding programmes, to ten year R&D programmes when it benefits the health of the nation, economic growth, or our priorities that we set out an industrial strategy. That’s not going to cost a penny to the exchequer, but it will give certainty to those research institutions, and it will crowd in funding from the private sector, unlock more private sector investment into these sectors. These are the things we can do without spending, without borrowing, without taxing more. These are the lessons we have to learn, and it’s why we will not be judged on the constraints and failures of the past 14 years, because there is another way forward. Having an assertive government that’s out there, unlocking potential, using all the tools it has, not just tax and spend, to make sure that we can get the investment into our economy and public services that we need so badly.