Rural areas in the North need to band together to protect themselves from the potential fallout of Brexit and to try and use it as a force for good, a report has found.
The report, commissioned by Northumberland County Council, outlined the best and worst case scenarios for the region following the UK’s exit from the EU, and found that even the rosiest predictions for the future come with “significant challenges”. This is largely due to the weaknesses present in the northern economy, in or out of the EU, which include poor connectivity – both digitally, in the form of IT, and physically, in the form of transport – as well as a failure to coordinate policy-making across the region, and a poor jobs and skills market.
The story gets worse when considering that the so-called ‘rural economy’ makes the North even less competitive, with rural premises across the UK being eight and a half times less likely than urban premises to have access to an acceptable quality of broadband, for example. Combined with low wages, a lack of affordable housing and a dependency on EU funding – particularly damning when considering the impact of Brexit – one sees that the North is fragile, and Brexit could bring the region to its shatter point by tearing North-East manufacturing firms away from key supply chains in Europe, and making exporting there more expensive.
Despite that, assessing the exact impact Brexit will have on the North is tricky – hence the need to consider both the best and worst case scenario – and the report does point out that Brexit may well have a silver lining. In leaving the EU, we will also leave its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), allowing us to devise our own system of farming programmes and subsidies, one more focussed on British farming needs. The report suggests an increased focus on Research & Development (R&D) and exploring the use of GM crops, amongst other things, and furthermore suggests that policies intended to make farming more environmentally friendly could be redesigned to cost less (the price tag on such ‘agri-environmental’ policies is often what scares farmers off from adopting them). There may also be the opportunity to devolve the power wrested from Brussels to local authorities in the North; the report briefly flirts with the idea of a “new Council for the North”.
The main take away from the report, though, is the need for rural areas to work together to avoid the worst of Brexit, such as cutting through complicated local government structures, which, as well as local authorities, also include such minutiae as Growth Deals and Local Enterprise Partnerships . The northern economy is multi-faceted – boasting strong manufacturing, agricultural and digital sectors – which lends it a certain versatility that may still not be enough to fend off the impact of Brexit. From 2007-2020, the North-East will have guzzled up around £800m of EU ‘Structural Funds’, a lifeline from which the region will be severed once we leave; tariff barriers will also be erected by the EU once the UK exits, making exporting produce more expensive, while the end of the free movement of labour could create a labour shortage in the North.
If policymakers and those working in different sectors of the Northern economy work together, though, the potential damage from Brexit could well be mitigated, with the added possibility of making long overdue reform