Observer column: 7 February 2020
The UK has left the European Union. For now, nothing much alters, as our current relationship with the EU remains the same until the end of 2020. But after that, there will be changes - and they could affect businesses and prosperity here in Hastings.
Many businesses I have spoken to in Hastings are anxious about the impact of Brexit. Some changes, although insignificant overall, could have dramatic effects on individual businesses. One local manufacturer of food products told me how they are worried about tomato imports. They use Greek tomatoes, which have a particular flavour they need, and can't be grown in the UK. If there are any import controls at border ports, the growers have said they simply won't export to the UK because there's enough demand in the EU for all the tomatoes they can supply. The cost of re-formulating products with different tomatoes, or developing new products, would be prohibitive.
Other manufacturers have expressed concerns about exporting their products, and potential tariffs they might have to face. The language schools are also concerned that fewer EU students will come to Hastings. And tourism, which is still our biggest economic sector, could suffer if fewer EU nationals choose to take their holidays here.
We shall also lose EU structural funding. During 2018 alone, Hastings Council received over £10m from the EU. Over the past ten years, the council and other organisations have received over £50m, which has helped to fund many different projects, from the Fisheries Local Action Group to help the local fishery, to the CHART project to fund employment and community development schemes. This EU funding will be replaced by the government's 'Shared Prosperity Fund'. But at the moment, no-one knows how this will work, and whether deprived areas such as Hastings will benefit to the same degree. A consultation paper was promised on this fund over a year ago, but still hasn't emerged.
Some local industries could benefit from Brexit - the most obvious one being our fishery. Although only a small part of the local economy, the fishery remains important as a contributor to other sectors, especially tourism. However, this will depend on trade negotiations with the EU, and to what extent the government is prepared to protect an industry that represents only 0.1% of the national economy. And the Hastings fishery exports 90% of its catch to France - retaining that market unhindered will require some trade-offs.
However, Britain is out of the EU, so we do have to make the best of it, and exploit any potential advantages. For example, not being bound by state aid rules could make it easier to support local businesses, and to set up new trading and income generating enterprises within the public sector. Being free from cumbersome EU procurement rules could be advantageous too. There might be opportunities to grow our local manufacturing sector. We already have specialist electronics manufacturers locally, so the opportunities for developing sustainable energy generation and new 'green' industries here in Hastings are attractive. We are the sunniest town in mainland UK, and one of the windiest - what better place to develop new energy technologies?
I voted to remain, and I still believe remaining in the EU would have been a better option. But we have to move on. And we have to make sure that Hastings makes the most of any opportunities in this post-Brexit era.
Council Leader's column