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Northern leaders must demand a People’s Vote to secure the region’s future

The Mersey Ferry on the River Mersey in front of the Liverpool skyline. Picture: Peter Byrne/PA Archive/PA Images - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

BEN PUMMELL from campaign group Our Future, Our Choice argues that a no-deal Brexit would widen the north-south divide at a time when the north is demanding greater self-determination.

This week, frustrations across the north of England have reached a critical level.

Alongside major political and business leaders, more than 30 local and regional newspapers and media outlets publicly called on the government to revolutionise the way the region is governed.

Papers including the Sheffield Star, the Manchester Evening News and the Liverpool Echo demanded “a fundamental shift in decision-making out of London, giving devolved powers and self-determination to people in the north”.

The demands include further devolved powers, funding commitments to rail services in the north, a bespoke industrial strategy, and the elevation of the Northern Powerhouse minister to cabinet status.

Patience in the north ran out a long time ago. Now grievances are growing into organisation.

The reaction is an unsurprising conclusion to the consistent lack of action on a range of key issues from transport to housing: since Theresa May took office, the government’s commitment to the Northern Powerhouse initiative has waned considerably.

However, throughout this campaign I can’t help but notice that the issue of Brexit is conspicuous in its absence, with some articles going so far as to treat the two issues as totally separate. In reality they are inextricably linked, and we should not be denying that fact.

The truth is that for the Northern Powerhouse to be a success and the region to gain opportunities for devolution, no-deal Brexit has to be definitively ruled out and a People’s Vote must be held on any deal.

The frontrunners for the leadership of the Conservative Party are only paying lip service to our demands, whilst categorically denying the devastating consequences for the north of England that a no-deal Brexit would cause.

Brexit has already played a major role in disrupting the Northern Powerhouse and the wider region’s development. The Institute of Public Policy Research North stated in its ‘State of the North 2018’ report that “Brexit chaos” has already led to the Northern Powerhouse being “deprioritised” by the government. Indeed, in terms of the immediate impact of a no-deal Brexit, the north would be at the sharp edge of any economic disruption.

According to research by the CBI, the north-east would suffer the biggest decline of economic output in the country, with the equivalent of £7 billion lost in economic output and production dropping 10.5% by 2034.

This trend is already manifesting itself in the issues faced by major employers such as British Steel as the country weathers the ongoing Brexit uncertainty and we race towards another deadline from the EU.

The issue of funding for future development is another crucial factor that is being ignored by those happy to play political games with our future. The new Northern Powerhouse campaign is hyper-aware of this – crucial demands include a commitment to totally devolve the “shared prosperity fund” that is intended to replace EU structural funding following an exit from the EU.

It’s plain to see why this decision has been made. Recent analysis by campaign group Communities in Charge projected that funding would drop by £479 million in the north east and £166 million in the north west between 2021 and 2027 if the UK government’s allocation plans follow the same structure as other economic affairs. Though ostensibly supporting the government’s recent commitment to northern prosperity and devolution, this measurement approach would leave some of the most vulnerable communities significantly worse off.

The region is heavily reliant on EU funds to plug the gaps that have been left at a national level. As an example to demonstrate just how stark the gap between regions is, the Newcastle Chronicle calculated in 2016 that the Hartlepool region receives twice as much EU funding per head – £187 since 2007 – than the national average in England of £82.

The north would be hit with a one-two punch of devastating consequences in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

First, there will be immediate economic shock caused by a default to WTO standards, with new tariffs damaging the UK’s ability to compete in the export market, and the loss of frictionless trade causing major disruption to vital ‘just-in-time’ supply chains. This economic destruction would then be followed in the long term by a new funding structure that does not favour the areas of the country that are most in need, further compounding the region’s existing issues.

Avoiding a no-deal Brexit is a fundamental part of maintaining the interests of the region. Metropolitan mayors from Manchester’s Andy Burnham to Liverpool’s Steve Rotheram, should recognise this in any campaigns advocating for further investment and political focus.

Crashing out without a deal would destroy the foundations of prosperity and development the region has worked so hard to build in the past decade, and serve to further deepen the north-south divide.

Following that, they must accept the only way to guarantee northern prosperity is to commit to a People’s Vote. This offers the people of the north of England the chance to prevent economic disruption and the replacement of indispensable EU funding with the skewed “shared prosperity fund” that could pave the way for an even more unequal, deeply centralised society, in which the poorest regions always come in last place.

We must not allow politicians who have only ever given a half-hearted glance at our concerns to act like they speak for us.

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