Just two Fridays before the Brexit vote, as part of Humber Business Week 2016, more than 300 representatives from businesses and organisations in the Humber listened to speakers and debated as part of panel discussions how the Humber should define its role in the Northern Powerhouse.
The quality of speakers and the debate were excellent and messages resulting from the Humber Northern Powerhouse Business Summit were very clear.
Businesses want ‘one voice’, a plan with a strong vision that builds on the Humber’s strengths outlining our proposition in the north, and to agree a ‘list of asks’ to help make it happen.
All agreed that the Humber had key strengths built on the industries around the estuary, particularly the ports and logistics and energy sectors.
There is no doubt now that we face unprecedented uncertainty in the wake of the EU referendum, however, we must not freeze during this time as we will have to work even harder to define our region’s role and what we need to make it happen.
What we do next is crucial. We are bringing together partners to understand the consequences of Brexit for the Humber, discuss what we need to do to protect our region’s interests and agree how to take forward our contribution to the Northern Powerhouse.
We want to hear from businesses about specific issues and opportunities, arising from Brexit and the Northern Powerhouse, so we can act on these together.
Our region needs to be part of the conversation and through strong collaboration we have the best chance of influencing to prepare for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
Key players from the North spoke at the Summit including Ed Cox, director of IPPR North, the only northern based think tank.
He championed the Humber as an economic area and made the case for the Northern Powerhouse with his parting shot saying the “Humber should be leading not pleading” on the role we play in the Northern Powerhouse.
IPPR North’s recent contributions to the debate include the publication of a “Blueprint for a Great North Plan” and “Gateways to the northern powerhouse: A northern ports strategy”. The strategy looks at the north of England’s major ports, vital and high-performing assets for region’s industries and economy, and, among other objectives, explores how we could further transform the North into an east–west super corridor connecting Atlantic shipping with continental Europe.
The Humber clearly has an essential role within that, and we must maintain that position despite Brexit.
But of course we cannot ignore that when it comes to overseas trade we don’t yet know what the future looks like so it will be difficult for businesses to be clear about future investments.
Part of the Humber’s current renaissance is due to our development as the UK’s Energy Estuary. This does not change, the UK market is still very significant, but clearly there is now a question on whether we can turn that important domestic business into an exporting one.
Juergen Maier, Chief Executive of Siemens PLC, put it clearly last week: “We are 100 per cent committed to our investment in Hull and the 1,000 new jobs. If we, and very importantly a much wider offshore industry located in the Humber, want to export in the longer term we need to understand what the arrangements such as for export and EU funded R&D, are between the UK and the EU.”
With the coming domestic political changes there is also a risk and an opportunity around UK energy policy, which has a direct link to how big the market is and therefore how much manufacturing we can develop in our region. That will be something to make the case on again over the coming months.
When Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council, said at our Summit that there was “the chance to redress the country’s balance away from London” and that the Humber must unite in a plan to be part of the Northern Powerhouse, he was entirely right.
We won’t know for some time yet what the full implications of Brexit will be, but in the short term it seems inevitable that it will absorb the attention of Whitehall and make it harder to engage Government on this and other matters.
The Northern Powerhouse can proceed without Government. It must. But we should not let Government off the hook, either.
Despite the uncertainty we are all facing it is crucial therefore that we press on, working with our neighbours to maintain the case for the Northern Powerhouse and a strong role for the Humber within it.