In the front line of Brexit
Kent sits in the front line of Brexit. It hosts the ports and the tunnel that will move people and goods across the new border. It grows crops and fruit that are harvested by workers who have come from other EU countries to the county, often for generations. And it works with policing and security colleagues across the borders on a daily basis.
All of that and more is why Canterbury Christchurch University has been leading a project to look at what we can do to be Making a Success of Brexit. Based in the Centre for European Studies we have been working with businesses across Kent, and with farmers, the police, health, local government and many others. Launched in December 2016 in Westminster the first report looked at the whole range of sectors affected by Brexit. In June we will be publishing a second report looking in more detail at small and medium-sized businesses and the rural economy.
What we have found so far underlines the truism that businesses vary greatly, and it is difficult to generalise too far. But even saying that, it has been instructive to look at the views and concerns of business. One revealing survey asked how companies saw their prospects under Brexit. In the short term some 50% thought they would be worse off and only 10% better off. Looking ten years ahead, however, these proportions swap around with 40% saying they could be better off and only 30% worse off. Businesses would like to see the short-term adverse effect of Brexit brought forward to move us more quickly into the more successful future they think can be achieved.
We also found that most companies are not convinced that the current business support network is adequate to help them through the changes ahead due to Brexit. Many business people think that there is room for significant improvement in the way government-funded organisations and programmes help companies. They are particularly seeking support with planning how to take advantage of export opportunities and how to develop a new business model after Brexit. Assistance with dealing with changes in staffing and recruitment as and when we have a new regime for managing immigration is also desired.
Labour issues are certainly front and centre for businesses in Kent. Whether farms or hospitals or universities, many bodies across the county have grown under the framework of free movement of people in the EU. This affects every level of employment, from the most specialised and skilled individuals in academia or surgery, to the much larger numbers who support farming and horticulture. Our report highlighted the need for a new version of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme after Brexit, and we will be looking in more detail at the needs of the NHS during the autumn. For universities there is the potential double blow of losing valuable academic staff and reduced numbers of students from EU countries.
Clearly many organisations would welcome early clarity on the future status of current EU migrants working in the UK and how the needs of the economy will be met by a new regime for migration control when we have regained control of our borders.
Brexit remains the most important, and complex, issue facing our economy and society, and we hope the work we are doing will contribute to addressing the concerns so we can indeed be Making a Success of Brexit.
Professor Mark Hammond is a member of the Penna Public Sector Advisory Board.