Championing regional voices in an age of Brexit

Hamlet needs updating. Amidst the volatility of a leadership crisis in the Danish court, and his own existential crisis, Hamlet fashioned a drama within a drama, asserting that ‘the play’s the thing’ by which to reveal Establishment culpability, and to force change, both personal and political. Faced with similar challenges, analysts and politicians – all of whom have had their fill of Brexit drama – have sought to determine the costs and benefits of Brexit. Thus, here, ‘the report’s the thing’ – the means by which the mixed nature of the impending changes can be revealed, and intelligent decision-making prompted.

Since 2016, several such reports have emerged, reflecting specific policy areas (e.g. higher education), a given sector (e.g. the automotive industry), a collective voice (e.g. The Federation of Small Businesses) – and they’ve generally been national in scope. All well and good. At Canterbury Christ Church University, we wanted to do something different.

We began early. Prior to the 2016 Referendum, we gathered stakeholders from across the county of Kent and Medway, who provided an intriguing range of anxiety and optimism. The common factor swiftly emerged: a lack of evidence-based information about the actual impact of Brexit in key areas. It quickly became apparent that without a decent overview of the negative impacts, the potential opportunities arising from Brexit across Kent as a whole, there could be no genuine preparedness within its strategically-important sectors.

In this exercise we committed to a cross-sectoral spread. We were interested in providing a forum for objective analysis on the basis of as inclusive a discussion as possible. In practical terms, this meant gathering key decision-makers from local government, business, rural economy, transport, tourism, healthcare, higher education and police and law enforcement, as well as environment and heritage. The interplay between these sectors proved invaluable.

Our first report for example identified vital overlaps in the transportation logistics linking local SMEs, multi-national firms, agriculture, tourism and security, with clear impacts on the prices and availability of key goods and services arising from overstretched customs operations at key points in Kent.

The second report went further: entitled ‘Kent and Medway: Making a Success of Brexit: A Sectoral Appraisal’, it was launched in Westminster in December 2016, and incorporated the increasingly specific needs arising from Kent’s sectors in the form of ‘asks’ to be put to national government. Using a simple but effective methodology of examining the positive opportunities, the negative impacts, and the ensuing sectoral ‘asks’, the report helped draw attention to the increasingly clear regional needs of Kent and Medway.

It is tough to measure the success of a report. Impact? citations? reprints? other institutions ‘borrowing’ the title? It’s a combination of pull and push. Pull by decision-makers requiring evidence-based insights to fill in the blanks of Britain’s Brexit strategy. And blanks there are, as the government appears to have made distressingly little progress since last summer.

This opportunity constitutes the push factor, whereby the authors of the reports, including us, want the findings published visibly and widely. On this basis, we refined our initial sectoral appraisal to look in real depth at two inter-connected sectors in Kent: SMEs and the rural economy.

In doing so, we achieved our third goal of focusing on county viewpoints. Our third report, ‘Kent and Medway: Making a Success of Brexit: A Sectoral Appraisal of SMEs and the Rural Economy’ was launched at Westminster on 13 July, 2017. Its input has been generated almost exclusively by individuals, companies, and associations founded in, operating within, or transiting through Kent as a whole, but who have key commercial interests with the EU. Equally, both SMEs and the rural economy are a microcosm of national trends; impacts to them arising from Brexit will have a profound knock-on impact for the rest of the country.

This makes Kent a frontline county, in every sense. The county lies closest to Europe, and is the main locale for the reception and conduit of goods and people from Europe, to and through the UK. From juxtaposed border controls, to SMEs reliant on trade with EU clients, from European staff and students underwriting its healthcare and education systems to seasonal workers to Kent farmers reliant on European labour, Kent’s proximity to Europe features heavily in its social, political and economic makeup.

Approaching SMEs on the basis of their trade, investment, labour, supply chain and client base connections with the EU, we examined impacts ranging from terms of trade with and beyond the EU, new regulations and standards, labour, and funding. In terms of rural economy, we examined support funding, migrant and seasonal labour, and technology and legislation-driven innovations.

Our mixed method approach combined a literature review of major sector-specific reports, successive local surveys of Kent commerce, an analysis of Kent Invicta Chambers of Commerce and Kent Rural Plc. reports, and a bespoke in-house survey. The goal was to ensure that quantitative indicators paralleled qualitative analysis to produce robust evidence of changes in Kent categorised as either positive or negative to business.

As of summer 2017, the outlook isn’t great. Brexit will have a disproportionately heavy impact on Kent in general, and SMEs and the rural economy in particular, resulting in price hikes and goods unavailability, investment reductions, labour market contractions, and funding drop-offs. Reworking trading partnerships, remaking regulations and standards, and reworking customs structures may represent key opportunities, but not easily or swiftly.

The Economist recently noted that ‘despite the frantic political activity in Westminster  – the briefing, back-stabbing and plotting – the country has made remarkable little progress since the referendum in deciding what form Brexit should take’ (July 22, 2017, p.9). As we’ve demonstrated, this isn’t entirely the case.

Institutions like Canterbury Christ Church have made serious strides in engaging with key stakeholders, and identifying both sectoral needs and regional requirements. Report findings will assist in clarifying the very real compromises that lie ahead, helping decision-makers rank those various preferences, and do so in a way that engages with, rather than ignores the key actors in this process. But more will be needed. The government would do well do pull together the macro-views arising from its newly established Business Advisory Group with micro-views articulating local and regional needs. Kent is a great place to start.

By Professor Amelia Hadfield, Director of the Centre for European Studies (CEFEUS) at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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