With Brexit looming now is the time for the East to push ahead

PUBLISHED: 00:00 01 January 2019 | UPDATED: 08:31 01 January 2019

Prime minister Theresa May is hoping her Brexit plan will get the backing of MPs
Photo: PA / Victoria Jones

Prime minister Theresa May is hoping her Brexit plan will get the backing of MPs Photo: PA / Victoria Jones

PA Wire/PA Images

Even with just three months to go Brexit uncertainty remains for businesses in our region and beyond. Business editor RICHARD PORRITT looks forward to what the coming year holds

House of Fraser is set to close its Norwich store at Intu Chapelfield in the spring 
Picture: Neil DidsburyHouse of Fraser is set to close its Norwich store at Intu Chapelfield in the spring Picture: Neil Didsbury

Ever since the business community awoke blinking in to the Brexit dawn two and half years ago bosses have demanded one thing: certainty.

And yet with just weeks to go before the UK leaves the European Union and goes it alone nothing is certain.

Boardrooms across the East of England – regardless of whether they thought Brexit was a good idea or not – are nervous. And rightly so.

As it stands the politicians have given us very little to go on. They have failed business at almost every turn and there is little hope of the clarity that is so badly needed appearing on the horizon.

Toys R Us closed its doors in 2018
Photograph: Martin Pearce.Toys R Us closed its doors in 2018 Photograph: Martin Pearce.

We should expect more can kicking. It has become government policy to delay and stall the Brexit negotiations again and again. Clearly Theresa May believes by taking it to the wire she can get the best deal.

Perhaps history will prove her right but in the meantime businesses have had to make some very difficult decisions. And at this late stage the tipping point has been and gone.

For those companies that stand to lose the most if there is a hard Brexit money – vast amounts – has already been spent on mitigating the risk. Offices have been moved to ensure firms can continue to trade within the EU and subsequently jobs have been lost. We can only hope that this is collateral damage rather than the beginning of a mass exodus.

Of course for many small and medium businesses spending any amount of money on attempting to dodge the fall out from Brexit is out of the question. For the vast majority of firms in the East the only option is to sit tight and hope for the best.

The high street is changing with more people shopping online
Picture: GREGG BROWNThe high street is changing with more people shopping online Picture: GREGG BROWN

And many believe the best we have got is Mrs May’s deal. The markets’ reaction to the Chequers deal being agreed by cabinet and again between the UK and EU was telling – at this stage any plan is better than no plan.

But that plan appears doomed. Behind the scenes there has been frantic work to garner more support for her proposal. But even though it is likely some MPs will change their minds it seems impossible it will be enough.

Bluntly, no-one knows what on earth is happening or might happen next. But if we are to learn anything from the history of these negotiations it should be that it will go down to the wire.

And it is not just planning that has taken an almighty Brexit wallop. People, it appears, are as nervy as companies.

Footfall is down on the high street, spending has slumped and it appears not a week goes by without another big-name casualty. House of Fraser, Toys R Us and Maplin are just the tip of the iceberg of retailers that have gone kaput in the last 12 months.

Our high streets are changing for good. There is no way of turning back the clock on online shopping. But it is not just the sofa shoppers that have hit the big names in the P and L statement – punters are hanging on to their hard-earned pennies and pounds.

Even online retailer ASOS, that seemingly could do no wrong until recently, released some gloomy pre-Christmas figures. Once again those accusing fingers are pointing at Brexit – or the mess surrounding it at least.

All the while firms in the East still have to grapple with other pressing issues: skills shortages, productivity levels well below average and twitchy lenders.

How can any of these problems be addressed when we can’t even plan confidently beyond March 29?

But among the doom there is some hope: Brexit could offer the East a fantastic opportunity.

For too long we have looked on as the North has been rebranded as a powerhouse and the Midlands has become the UK’s engine, now is the time for East Anglia to find its identity and start to sell itself better.

There is good work being done by the Local Enterprise Partnership and councils but we need to shout even louder.

Business must keep the pressure on MPs to ensure the East at least has some skin in the game. When this region’s politicians were unable to come to any real agreement over devolution many bosses believed it was a missed opportunity.

And the most recent Budget statements from Number 11 appear to confirm that fear. Other devolved areas have a hotline to the holder of the purse strings whereas we are left scrapping for the leftovers.

Businesses will agree that is not good enough. To survive post-Brexit businesses need all the tools available to soar.

Is now the time for a cross-party group of politicians to come together with business leaders and map out our own blueprint?

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