More than a year has passed since the United Kingdom, led by the North, voted to leave the EU – and amid the post-general election uncertainty, one thing is abundantly clear, we really are leaving .
Britain, and the North, will only flourish if we seize the opportunities that Brexit brings. Whatever form the UK’s future relationship with the EU takes, we must be free to enter into free trade agreements at any time we choose with any country we choose. We can only do this by leaving the Customs Union and starting to think globally.
When it comes to thinking globally, the North of England is ideally placed. The North as a whole has more than one million private sector businesses and currently produces almost 20 per cent of the UK’s goods exports. But with seven international airports and twelve major ports, our region could be doing even more.
To reach our full potential, we need further devolution. A Mayor for the North of Tyne, who understands the challenges facing our region and knows how to address them, would provide the kind of leadership we need post-Brexit.
For too long, the North East has been left behind – our region’s Gross Value Added (the measure of the value of goods and services produced in an area) lags far behind the South East and is nearly half that of London’s. The North East also has the fewest number of businesses per 10,000 people, has the highest level of youth unemployment of any region in the country and, in 2016, was one of only two regions of the UK (the other being Yorkshire and the Humber) which imported more than it exported.
In order to rectify this, we need to support businesses seeking to scale up and access global markets, as well as promote Newcastle and the wider North east as a destination for international business. This is not an empty soundbite, but an actual way of retaining and enhancing real jobs and livelihoods across the North East.
Policy North, the think-tank which I founded and currently chair, has identified real steps which need to be taken, the first being a Free Trade Zone spanning across the North. The Great North Free Port would be able to inject £12bn of investment and bring 612,000 jobs to the region, building and capitalising on a proven model of regional Free Trade Zones that work across the world. This would ensure that business in our region could benefit from greater access to markets abroad.
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Connectivity and skills are the other key pillars of this strategy. The North has a skills gap: as well as having the country’s highest level of youth unemployment, there are still 2,000 vacancies in the tech sector across the North East. A new Skills Standard would give employers the confidence to know that this skills gap is being addressed and would build on the progress already made by the Government on apprenticeships.
The once in a lifetime decision to unshackle ourselves from EU bureaucracy means our region can forge new trade agreements and explore exciting new markets. Only by understanding and addressing the challenges of today, and thinking globally for tomorrow, can we seize the joint opportunities of Brexit and devolution.
Stephen Purvis is the Chair of Policy North