Making Brexit work for Derby
It’s a Friday afternoon in autumn when we meet at the Institute for Innovation in Sustainable Engineering in Derby’s Lonsdale House. We’re taken up a metal staircase to a brick walled room known as the Dragons’ Den, where business and political leaders have gathered to pitch their ideas on how Derby can flourish after Brexit.
The challenges are well known. The value of the pound has plummeted as investors worry about the economic outlook and a leaked Treasury report claims a so-called ‘Hard Brexit’ would cost the country £66 billion a year.
Despite the uncertain outlook, there’s a sense that Derby is ready to roll up its sleeves and grasp the opportunities on offer.
“I think we should be bold and confident,” says Bob. “We are a very passionate city and we’ve got a lot to celebrate. Derby punches above its weight an awful lot. So let’s be focused, upbeat and on the front foot. Let’s find and win business.”
Ranjit agrees: “The first thing we need to do is tell the world that Britain is open for business. I’m worried that Brexit sends a message that we want to be left alone.
“How did we become Great Britain? We’re an island people and much of our history has involved building ships and travelling the world to create links, see cultures and foster trade.
“It comes back to the need to think globally. That’s what China has done very successfully since the 1950s. They had a very clear plan and now they are a global superpower.”
“Europe is actually quite small,” adds Pauline. “Let’s look to the rest of the world and the emerging economies. Africa is a good example because most of the countries there are growing at a rate of 8% and that is a fantastic opportunity.”
“So what impact will Brexit have on trade?” asks Kathryn.
“If the UK is not in the single market then it is possible some sectors will be subject to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules with a tariff of possibly up to 10%,” Colin says.
Pauline offers a potential solution: “If we do have a 10% tariff there is a possibility – and I’m not saying that this is what government will do – but they could drop taxes for business if they are exporting.”
“Does an increased international focus detract from local initiatives such as the Midlands Engine?” asks Kathryn.
“You have to have balance,” says Colin. “The UK is a remarkably small country in a very big world. We can’t expect the country to compete against itself. In my view, we need to be collaborating together much more.
“The Midlands cluster is really quite good. We’re only 40 minutes away from Birmingham and only an hour and twenty minutes from London. Let’s face it – in the Midlands we have phenomenal universities and great examples of advanced manufacturing. There’s enough collective mass there.”
“We can’t just be team Derby anymore,” chips in Ed. “We’ve got to be team UK, powered by Derby, powered by Nottingham, and so on. We’re better off together than we are apart.”
Theresa May recently highlighted the need for a national industrial strategy, Kathryn notes. What should this look like?
Bob would like to see more consistency in the long run. “Everything is short term these days. It depends on who is in power and what budget there is. I think if we’re serious about an industrial strategy then we need to be talking about the next 20 years.”
“I think the truth is there hasn’t been an industrial strategy in this country for so long,” observes Pauline. “I’d focus on education. I don’t think we are educating enough scientists, mathematicians and engineers. We’ve got some incredibly able young people but we desperately need to improve our education system. We’ve got to have a competitive nature in education because life out there is competitive and children need to get used to it.”
“Get the politics out of education and be more robust on the quality levels,” says Colin. "That's the sort of thing big business is asking for. Frankly, we’re letting the next generation down by not pushing them hard enough.
“Speaking as an industrialist and a school governor, I also wish people would stop mucking around with all the exams. Keep it simple and stop constantly changing things.”
“Derby also has its challenges with poverty and deprivation,” Ranjit adds. “There’s a real lack of aspiration among some of our young people. I think we’ve got a lot of work to do at a grassroots level in our communities.”
“I also agree that we need to think more long term. That’s why we need to change our electoral system in Derby. The City Council has elections every year, which makes it hard to act strategically. We’re taking an historic vote in November to change the electoral cycle, so that we can be more long term in our thinking, and I’ll support the change.”
“We’ve talked about education and also the need to adopt a more international outlook,” Kathryn says, “but what does Brexit mean for international students? Should they be exempt from the migration statistics?”
“Yes, I think they should be exempt,” says Pauline. “They enrich our country and there’s no reason for them to be included in those
statistics because they’re not permanent residents. We can have two categories of migration: temporary and permanent. International students who go home after their degree are more likely to do business with Derby in the future because they know and trust the city.”
As we draw the discussion to a close, it’s clear that a consensus is emerging.
“We need to accept Brexit has happened, deal with it and move on,” summarises Ed. “That’s what’s going to make us succeed as a country and as a city.”
Writer: Jeremy Swan
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