Policy-makers need to account for regional variations when planning how to help British firms adapt to life outside the EU, delegates at the Kent Business Summit 2020 were told
The conference, held in partnership with the IoD, the Federation of Small Businesses and investment agency Locate in Kent, attracted more than 400 local business leaders, politicians and academics to Canterbury to discuss Brexit and other key issues affecting Kentish enterprise.
Focusing on Kent’s future relationship with the EU, Jagjit Chadha, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, said that Brexit had “thrown sand into the wheels of trade”, noting that the county’s location would mean that it would be among those regions most seriously hit by any disruption in UK-EU trade.
“Businesses in this area should be asking for a bit more support, because they will be more directly affected by the consequences of leaving the EU,” he told the conference.
Chadha urged Kentish business leaders to lobby the government to share the detail of its plans to help them manage the impact of Brexit on their region.
“Regional heterogeneity matters – there is no common solution for the whole of the country,” he argued. “To think that there is only one response is highly misguided. We have to try to explain to central government why this region is different and why the Brexit shock will affect us in a specific way.”
‘Quite finely poised’
Kent’s ability to increase private-sector investment – which has stagnated since the 2016 Brexit referendum – and improve productivity are two key factors in the county’s future prosperity, delegates heard.
Phil Eckersley, the Bank of England’s agent for south-east England and East Anglia, said: “When you ask businesses across the UK why investment has slowed, the primary candidate is Brexit uncertainty. This could be temporary and we’ll see a substantial uptake in investment soon – or, more worryingly, activity might have slowed to such an extent that there won’t be a reason to invest in a post-Brexit environment. It’s quite finely poised at the moment.”
Others were more optimistic about the county’s prospects. William English CDir, an ambassador for IoD Kent and a fellow of the institute, said: “Kent remains the front door to Europe. There is a huge opportunity from a business point of view, if we have the strategic infrastructure in place, to allow for the travel between Europe and the rest of Britain. We’re also starting to see resurgent activity that will make Kent more of a business destination.”
Given that a trade deal between the UK and the EU is yet to be negotiated, some local entrepreneurs attending the summit indicated that they would welcome a regional approach to some of the issues that businesses nationwide face after 31 January.
After more than three years of uncertainty since the referendum, Jill Rutter, senior research fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe, urged delegates to use the UK’s departure from the EU this month as a stimulus for positive changes.
“One of the best ways to offset the downturn is if Brexit kick-starts a debate about changing the UK economy and how we address some of our productivity and skills problems,” she said. “We can really use this as a wake-up call to start these changes.”