Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.
Life after Brexit means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To the academic Brexiteer it could be the sunlit uplands of Free Trade and Free Speech, while to the arch-Remainer it means a nightmarish hellscape of disorder and scarcity. But to Britons who voted both leave and remain, life after Brexit should mean change. Real, visible, demonstrable change.
Whether we leave with no deal or the EU’s proposed deal, the onus is on the nation’s politicians to make life after we leave both visibly different and better than before. The threat to our democracy if we coast along, or worse, ignore the will of the people, is real.
Putting blue passports and other changes to international travel aside, making ‘Brexit’ feel like ‘Brexit’ means delivering the promises of the referendum. To Conservatives this means – or it certainly should mean – more freedom for individuals in the immediate term, while looking at how we create a better world for future generations, and do justice to those who came before us.
In short, those of us who believe in both Britain and Brexit need to protect the vision that was sold to voters when we won the referendum in 2016 – taking back control. We need to clearly demonstrate that politicians have listened, learned and will think and act differently to before. This can be achieved in a number of ways.
The UK has one of the lowest youth unemployment rates anywhere in Europe, but there are still hundreds of thousands of under 25s in need of the first step on the career ladder. This is one challenge where an end to unrestricted, unskilled migration may bring change.
On top of incentivising companies to hire young people from the UK – either through the tax system or otherwise – the scarcity caused by restrictions on unskilled labour may well force companies to become more innovative and thus productive.
While we can blame free movement for exacerbating our productivity problem, tackling it as a whole rather than relying purely on migration controls is one of the best ways we can grow our economy. That’s why I welcome the Government’s plan to introduce an immigration system based on people’s skills, not where they come from. A clear example of demonstrable change.
A new trade policy, with an eventual shift from the declining EU to relationships with faster growing economies must be a national priority. One of my flagship policies for the Tees Valley, which I hope the Government will adopt, is the creation of Free Trade Zones in the UK.
These would realise the benefits of increased manufacturing and international trade faster than might otherwise happen, through tariff and tax incentives. Sometimes called Free Ports, these zones could help to add billions to the economies of the UK’s most deprived regions, and create hundreds of thousands of jobs. Most fittingly, this policy would bring the benefits of Brexit to areas that voted heavily to leave. Another example of clear, demonstrable change.
Closer to home, there are some quick wins the Government can do the day after Brexit to demonstrate it is serious about change. Scrapping the hated Tampon Tax and VAT on energy bills would make the vast majority of Britons better off over night. It might also consider a ‘CANZUK’ migration deal with Australia, New Zealand and Canada, to strengthen ties with our old friends on the international stage while ensuring we have access to skills from around the globe.
The new Shared Prosperity Fund, which will replace EU funding into the regions, is a great opportunity to put areas like mine back in control of our own economic destinies – especially if the money is directed by elected Metro Mayors.
Some organisations, often big businesses and even bigger public bodies, want business as usual after Brexit, yet these organisations are desperately in need of change, and the ones that will benefit most from it.
Many of the challenges faced today are not entirely Brexit related, but more simply the reality of political, economic, and business life in the 21st century. While not a silver bullet, Brexit does however present both the opportunity and an incentive to tackle them now.