Ben Houchen is Mayor of the Tees Valley.
It’s obvious to anyone following politics since the European Referendum that the Government have been knocked from pillar to post when it comes to Brexit and the negotiations. Following the result, Vote Leave and the other associated campaigns thought the job was done, and they’ve largely packed up and gone home.
I say that as someone who was on the board for Business for Britain North East, and campaigned strongly for Brexit. After the referendum, a job was done; however, to many remain supporters the vote itself was not the end. Many of the organisations involved in Remain and the organisations they were involved in are still campaigning hard. We’ve seen this manifested in calls for a second referendum, for staying in the single market and the customs union – through to any bad news announcement being because we’re leaving, and any good news announcement being “despite Brexit”.
All of this and much more has led to the overall narrative of Brexit being negative – something which is itself damaging to Britain’s future prospects and something which I believe is wrong. I represent 650,000 people in the Tees Valley – an area that in part voted to leave more heavily than almost any other area in the UK. The people that I represent feel that areas like the Tees Valley were left behind under the largesse years under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and they feel disconnected from the economic boom felt in London and the South East.
But there is a grit and a natural optimism in places like Tees Valley when it comes to Britain’s place in the world. We succeeded before we joined the EU, and we can succeed after we leave. We led the world during the industrial revolution. We created and exported the best that is to be seen in the world, and this was done in places like Middlesbrough and Hartlepool. Indeed, the first passenger railway was created between Darlington and Stockton. We are and have always been an internationalist society. It is this natural optimism about Britain and the need to take back control of our own destiny that drove the Leave vote; such an attitude should drive our hopes and aspirations for our future relationship with both the EU and the rest of the world… and I’m proposing something that will do just that.
Yesterday, I wrote to the Chancellor with the support of 50 of the biggest and most established businesses in the Tees Valley, many of which are big national or international players, and the trade bodies that represent them to call on him to support a freeport being piloted in Teesside. My parliamentary neighbour Rishi Sunak, MP for Richmond, wrote a wonderful report on the potential benefits of freeports to the UK economy.
The potential to create many, many tens of thousands of jobs within the bottom quarter percentile of local authority areas shows that there are significant benefits from being outside of the EU, especially in places like the North East. What does this have to do with the EU are some of you say? Well, freeports are currently illegal under European law, and so can only be established in the UK once we leave the Single Market and the Customs Union. This is not about rerunning the arguments of the referendum, but about demonstrating clear and obvious proposals that will benefit the UK economy once we leave the EU.
I call on the Chancellor and the Government to lend their support to this proposal as a demonstration that not only are we trying to rebalance the economy, but that leaving the EU will help us to do it. Let’s start talking about a good Brexit and the benefits it will bring – because there are many.