The triggering of Article 50 marks a new and important chapter in our history. We are forging a new relationship with our largest trade partner and untangling four decades of legislation. We also have the task of repairing the tattered fabric of our United Kingdom and healing the sharp divisions in our society.
This task carries particular weight for me. Key Cities, the group of which I’m the chair, represents 26 diverse cities from across the country, with 8.6m people between them; but unlike in most other cities, the clear majority of our residents voted to leave the European Union.
As city leaders, it is our duty to follow their will – whatever our personal politics. It is also our duty to do what we can to protect our communities from economic shock, and to do everything we can to prevent our residents from feeling left behind.
To achieve this, and to heal our divided country, Theresa May needs to take an inclusive approach to negotiation. The devolved administrations, London, and the Core Cities all have a contribution to make. Indeed, local government overall should be included in Brexit negotiations – but specifically cities like ours need their own voice. That is not to ask for a seat at the table in negotiations, but instead a role in scrutinising their outcome.
Cities like ours, plainly speaking, are the reason we voted to leave the EU. Our communities are the ones who stand to lose or gain the most from Brexit – we have both the potential to seize new opportunities and achieve rapid growth, and the potential to suffer if our great industries, our exporters, and our universities get a raw deal.
We ask the government to recognise that our constituents put their faith in leaving the EU on good terms for Britain, and that Westminster and Whitehall have an obligation to listen to their voices as we embark on this extraordinary project.
We believe that the Prime Minister can take some clear steps now, ahead of negotiations, to ensure a more stable outcome for Britain.
First, the Government should commit to a transitional period after 2019 to allow some more time to negotiate a new trading relationship with the EU. If we rush our exit, our economy, our jobs, and our communities will suffer. If we rush our exit, it could mean our great ports grind to a halt, and queues miles long form at Dover. If we can take time, we can minimise any disruption and adapt more efficiently to new trading arrangements.
Taking time means the Sunderland car factories, the aerospace workers of Preston, and the ports of the south coast can continue their work unimpeded. It’s our view that no deal is the worst option for Britain, so we would urge the government to take the time to get this right, stay at the table, and deliver the best deal for our country.
Second, the government should move to guarantee European structural funds that might be lost as we leave the EU. Crucially, these should be devolved directly to city leaders to avoid replicating the bureaucracy that hindered funds being used efficiently. That will give cities both financial stability and the means to pursue innovation and new opportunity.
Beyond these two steps, the government should make investment in skills its first priority as we move toward Brexit. As so many business and city leaders have said, the skills gap is what is really holding our country back. A successful economy requires excellent education, ranging from primary schools and secondary schools, to technical schools and colleges, and universities – all these institutions deserve guarantees on their funding at this critical time. Brexit of course will be a time consuming process, but we should all keep the real problem, of which Brexit is one major consequence, in mind.
Article 50 is a watershed moment for the country and for our cities. We heard their voices last June, and they should be heard in Brussels when the government sits down at the negotiating table.
Cllr Paul Watson is leader of Sunderland City Council and chair of the Key Cities group of 26 mid-sized cities.