Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
The UK faces momentous decisions over Brexit. Political machinations, entrenched viewpoints, and the impending deadline have seen the Brexit Deal dominate the national discussion in the first weeks of 2019.
These are historic times. The deal and its details have constitutional connotations which will define how the UK trades with the rest of the world for generations to come. It’s vital that Parliament is allowed to do its job properly in time-honoured fashion. Yet the inevitable inertia as the deal is hammered out is bad for business, the economy, and confidence.
That’s why it’s vital that while all the current talk is about whether there will be a deal on March 29th, the Government starts thinking now about what comes after a deal is struck.
So, what should the Government be planning?
First of all, we need to explain, explain… and explain again. The deal in its current state is 585 pages of highly technical language. While big business will have the resources and technical expertise to understand its implications, small businesses, charities, and many other organisations, simply will not. They will need to understand it, to accelerate returning confidence, and put certainty back into planning.
Looking ahead, we need to recognise that once a deal is struck, negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU begin straight away. What can we do to ensure there will not be the same parliamentary impasse when these proposals are brought forward? Is a new, more transparent approach required, that reaches out across the sectors to help build a parliamentary consensus?
With a deal settled, we need to demonstrate Conservative leadership to boost business, create jobs, and grow the economy.
There needs to be tangible support for the Government’s policy of Local Industrial Strategies – which the West Midlands has pioneered – to grow regional productivity.
That means investment in skills and training, and infrastructure to help business.
In some cases, this could mean direct support. Government should rapidly look at whether State Aid regulation can be altered to enable them to directly support our industries of the future, vital for companies such as Jaguar Land Rover.
Business rates on the High Street need to be looked at again, too. Retailers and traders welcomed the tax announcements in the Budget, but after a Christmas that has confirmed long-term trends these need to go further. Across all sectors of business, tax cuts will incentivise capital investment to increase productivity.
The sealing of a Brexit Deal is likely to release pent-up investments from businesses. I know businesses in the West Midlands have been deferring investment decisions because of the uncertainty over the deal. If the Government gets this right, we are likely to get a ‘Brexit boost’ as these investments are given the green light.
Of course, the UK will also be able to push ahead with new trade arrangements around the globe. Work has already begun with many countries, but there are some quick wins to be had here – such as abolishing mobile roaming charges in the USA. After the uncertainty of the last few months, we need to let the world know we are open for business. In the West Midlands, for instance, preparations for the Commonwealth Games in 2022 will play an important part in how we reach out as a region.
The next wave of public service reform needs to be interwoven into plans following a deal, too. The NHS long-term plan, investment in policing, getting Universal Credit right, and the roll-out of T-Levels all contribute to a new sense of investment and change.
Finally, we should unleash the regions to maximise the benefits of a new Brexit Deal. This means giving cash and power to Mayors and local decision-makers to drive their own prosperity, putting decision-making in the hands of those on the ground in the regions. Local leaders need long-term control as well as funding for transport investment so they can open new railway lines, build Metro systems, rollout out 5G and electric vehicle infrastructure. The regions need more powers to support the key sectors that build prosperity, and more control over Local Industrial Strategy. Our regions can drive the success of UK Plc.
The Comprehensive Spending Review this year is an opportunity for Government to make a success of Brexit. If Government gets this right it could ‘turn on the taps’ for billions of pounds of new investment into the UK.
For the West Midlands, this could be hugely significant, with ambitious investment in housing, more businesses choosing us as their home, a surge in confidence, and a tangible ‘Brexit Boost’ to the local economy.
When a Brexit Deal is struck, it will be time to get the UK moving again. Now is the time to start planning.