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Jamie Hardesty

EU Referendum: A roundup of North East business views

With the EU Referendum rapidly approaching, we’ve been asking North East business leaders to share their views ahead of the vote on June 23.

In a Bdaily Long Read we present a range of responses from business people who hail from a variety of sectors and industries.

Sean Bullick, CEO, NE1

“The implications of a British exit from the EU are profound and dangerous for the whole country. Nowhere are they more apparent than here in the North East where our business and economy is so reliant on our relationship with our EU neighbours.

“Our links with Europe affect so much on a day-to-day basis – the cost of flying into and out of our airports and the price of a week’s shopping. The North East stands to lose more European funding per capita than any other in England - £187 per head, compared with £82 nationally.

“So much of the positive regeneration we’ve seen on Tyneside and in the region in recent years we owe, at least in part, to the European Union – Sage Gateshead and Millennium Bridge, for example. But above all, the looming referendum presents a risk to our region’s economic future. With tens of thousands of jobs in the North East linked to EU trade – it is not a risk any of us can afford to take.”

Tim Bailey, Partner xsite architecture LLP

“The question being asked is really simple. The simple answer on the ballot paper belies a hugely complex balance of fact (the statistics and data that tell us what has happened), feeling (the cultural individual and their view of the world) and instinct (the mix of the first two that creates a picture of the future).

“Everywhere in life there are big clues that we thrive when we think and act collectively. This is true politically, as a nation or neighbourhood and as a family. The best and lasting decisions are made in a way that is inclusive and considers the larger community that will be affected by that decision. It’s big picture stuff. With us in Europe we can join and shape the drive for human and social equity through high standards in everything.

“Our part in that successful European story to date is significant. We have influence, are a trusted voice and can get things done. Why leave and pass all that decision making to our home grown politicians? What are they going to do with it except create a whole bunch of rules and regulations that we don’t like either! Don’t think that blaming the Germans or the French won’t be replaced with blaming the south or the selfish.

“I believe that the economy will work itself out in time after either decision. Of course it is an important consideration but nevertheless a distraction from the real issue and in a market driven economy the balance of trades will arrive and be as unfair and inequitable as it currently is (or vice versa if you prefer).

“Our responsibility in this decision is to our sense of shared humanity with our near neighbours with whom we share so much history, our vote-less young and voiceless community members who, for whatever reason, are unable to take part in the debate or decision. I’m in!”

Julian Christopher, Footprint Public Relations

“When I first moved to the North East in the year 2000, I was quite struck by its insularity. It was easy to understand, in terms of its physical isolation from other parts of the country and the self-reliance that this had bred into its character over many centuries, but having lived in various other parts of the UK, as well as overseas, this inward focus was something I’d not experienced elsewhere.

“Fast forward 16 years and the difference is startling. The North East has cast off its inhibitions, gained confidence and now proudly takes its proper place in the world, inviting others to share in everything it has achieved across any number of industries and sectors, as well as being actively interested in and welcoming of ideas and innovations from elsewhere in the UK, and indeed from around the world.

“In my view, the North East is all the better for having evolved in this way, and there are parallels to be drawn with the referendum question that’s currently being posed - do we look inwardly or outwardly?

“The EU needs to evolve, right enough, but being part of shaping that evolution offers so many more opportunities than watching it from afar, and despite all the ‘jam tomorrow’ promises that I’ve heard from Brexit campaigners, they’ve provided not a single jot of proof that things would definitely be better for the North East or UK outside the EU.

“Keeping your eyes on the horizon or casting them down at your shoes seems to me to be the choice we’re being asked to make on 23 June, and I’d suggest the right answer is pretty clear”

Mark Stephenson, Head of Public Affairs at Invicta Public Affairs

“For business confidence, investment, growth and freedom of trade there is only one way to vote – and that’s to stay in the EU. Divorcing ourselves significantly reduces the UK’s attractiveness to investors, including the large multinationals who seek entry to our region because they deem it attractive.

“Manufacturing giants Nissan and Hitachi are in favour of the UK remaining in the European Market and there is a reason for this. Likewise, the majority of businesses polled in every survey favour us remaining in the UK.

“Leaving would be disproportionately harmful to our clients’ operations in the UK nations and regions. Add to this exporters relying on the access provided by EU membership to a common market of over 500m consumers, and it is clear our economy is better off in.

“Devolution of policy and regulatory power to the nations and regions is now embedded in some areas and emerging in others. The PM’s deal with EU leaders ensures that the UK can take its place in the EU on terms we are comfortable with, without impacting negatively on other member states. The deal is not perfect, nor is the EU, but it serves us well.

“If we want to make our own decisions in the North East, devolution will continue to benefit from EU membership. Everyone interested in job and wealth creation, must play our part in communicating the importance of voting to remain EU members. All businesses are familiar with risk. We will opt for risk if there is reward but only with an evidence based plan. We have no such plan - Brexit is not bankable.”

Clive Rook, one of the founders of regional estate agent and surveyor Rook Matthew Sayer

“Membership of the EU is a huge cost to North East business. Only 5% of UK businesses export to the EU but all are caught up in a huge burden of regulations which costs business £600m a week.

“Everyone wants free trade, and with the EU having a massive trade surplus with the UK you can be sure that successful German car exporters and French farmers, with their own interests at heart, will ensure it continues.

“The EU, with the deeply unpopular ambition of political union at its heart, is a failing project with huge bureaucracy, high unemployment and low growth.

“We need control of our own budgets, trade and immigration policies in order to drive growth.”

Mr Rook stood as a candidate for the Referendum Party in the 1997 General Election believing there was a need for people to be consulted over the direction the EU was taking.

He added: “In 1975 I voted in the referendum on membership of the European Economic Community.

“The attractions of the common market were clear, but believing the few politicians like Tony Benn who warned of a hidden political agenda, a lack of democracy, and a loss of sovereignty, I voted to leave.

“In the last forty years the warnings have been proved right and I believe the time has now come for us to leave.”

Robyn Peat, Managing Partner at land, property and business consultants George F. White

“I really hope the UK public choose to remain within the European Union (EU). There’s a lot of chatter around why it’s in our best interests to leave but, in my opinion, the decision to leave is driven by ideology rather than practical issues.

“The Vote Leave group is backed by Boris Johnson but I do have to question if his passion is more about his career and personal development rather than the wealth and prosperity of our nation. We are a rich nation and we cannot forget that this is in part due to our EU membership.

“The EU protects us in so many ways - especially in terms of international trade. It does not restrict us and our business and commerce partnerships and transactions. If we choose to stay within the EU we are then in a position to influence change and strengthen or modify some of the EU’s weaker elements.

“If we leave, the future both short and long term is unknown and we don’t know what the political, financial, economical and social environment that we now reside in will be like because we will have to negotiate it. No matter how much those saying we should leave highlight the greater independence point, our nation, if we are no longer a part of the EU, will not be sovereign. If anything we will become less independent than how we are now.”

Darren Hankey , Principal at Hartlepool College of Further Education

“The EU is not perfect and, it could be argued, reforms are needed. That said, I firmly believe that the UK staying in the EU is the best option for three main reasons.

Firstly, the aim behind European countries uniting was to bring to an end of centuries of conflict – the EU is now a relatively harmonious place.

“Secondly, the benefits to the economy, especially here in the North East, are greater with many leading economists and economic organisations highlighting the uncertainty relating to Brexit. This is good for the Tees Valley and North East economy, and ultimately good for the college as we work with many organisations who trade with the EU.

“Finally there’s the social aspect to being a part of the EU. Lots of our laws relating to health & safety and equality emanate from Europe and these provide an effective framework for treating people in the workplace with dignity and respect.”

Paul Callaghan, chairman of Leighton Group, and chair of Sunderland’s Economic Leadership Board

“Sunderland’s economy is heavily dependent on the automotive and advanced manufacturing sectors, currently accounting for about 20,000 of the city’s 120,000 jobs. Our economic predictions suggest that this should grow from 20 to 25,000 jobs over the next eight years.

“These sectors rely on significant inward investment from Japan, S Korea and the USA, and the parent companies have chosen the UK and specifically Sunderland as it is in the EU but outside the Euro. Sunderland also has a proven productive workforce, relatively low wage levels compared to the South East and midlands and also an excellent port access for both the import of components and raw materials and the export of finished goods.

“If Britain leaves the EU I have considerable concern that this investment will reduce in the long term. Nissan and other major employers have expressed a wish that the UK remains in the EU for these reasons. I do not assume that these businesses will close their plants immediately, but the nature of the automotive industry is that plants across Europe have to compete to win the next model or the next line. It will put the Sunderland at a distinct disadvantage in the future if we are no longer part of the EU.

“It is my judgement as an economist and as chair of the Sunderland Economic Leadership Board that the UK should remain in the EU. My view is one expressed by 90% of economists. This clear consensus should not be dismissed as scaremongering but rather as a professional assessment of the consequences of staying in or leaving the EU. I will vote REMAIN.

Mike Matthews MBE, managing director of Nifco UK and European operations officer, also current president of the North East Chamber of Commerce

Mr Matthews has shared publically his view that an exit from Europe would be ‘business suicide’.

He said: “EU membership is not perfect, so I do think that there is some renegotiation needed.

“However, to leave would, in my opinion, be business suicide. Being part of the EU has allowed Nifco to compete with businesses across Europe more successfully. It’s created a level playing field that has forced us to up our game, and as a result, we are more efficient than we would have been without being part of Europe. To exit would, in my view, be playing roulette with the economy.

“With manufacturing and export a critical part of the North East’s economy, Brexit would hit this part of the country hardest. The demise of a sector that makes up 11per cent of UK GVA, pumps £6.7trillion into the economy, and provides well over 2million jobs* would be a devastating blow.

“And then how would that gap left by manufacturing be filled? What would replace it as an engine for growth? Brexit would impact on investment and would create a maelstrom of uncertainty.

“The world has changed, globalisation is here to stay, and our primary market – our closest market – must be our priority, and that is the EU.”

*Figures from industry publication The Manufacturer

David Cliff, Managing Director of Gedanken

“The fact that the referendum is occurring at all suggests that membership the EU is far from unequivocally advantageous. Many aspects of it have been an unmitigated disaster, not least the Euro, for which countries like Greece will suffer for years to come, and to a lesser degree so will all member states.

“There is no perfect system whether we’re in the EU of outside of it. What is important, given all the variables, is that people decide in an informed and balanced way, with an emphasis on facts rather than the simple polarities, prejudices and confirmation bias of those that have the public ear.

“The truth is the European vote is less about Europe and more about the nature of the vested interests, and the need for empowerment of every voice in our community. If we neglect those principles as a result of over adherence to tribal allegiances, simple ideologies or selective bias, whatever the result, we will be diminished as a society. I hope there is a good turnout, whatever the result, otherwise it is the fabric of our democracy that comes into question, not Europe.”

Amy Jackson, director at Newcastle branding agency Unwritten

“In short nobody knows with any degree of certainty what effect a Brexit could have. There are scaremongers on both sides who I actively choose to ignore the opinions of.

“That being said, we know the danger zone for any new business is the first three years. Our philosophy has always been to run not as a start-up but as an established business with the expertise and drive to thrive and expand.

“On a personal level, the idea of leaving Europe is intriguing. It could be a brave, bold move. But on a business level, I wouldn’t want possible instability to get in the way of the growing, thriving culture we have created here at Unwritten.”

Jonathan Gold, Managing Director of Rivers Capital Partners

“I will be voting to remain in the European Union. The North East is a net beneficiary of funding from the European Union, which includes a significant amount of business investment that we cannot guarantee the UK Government would replace if we leave.

“Money from the European Investment bank and the European Regional Development Fund, along with the Government’s Regional Growth Fund have already contributed £142 million in capital for business growth in the North East through Finance for Business North East (JEREMIE) and will provide £120 million more in the form of JEREMIE2.

“This money is essential to bridge the funding gaps that exist when people are starting and growing companies. If we leave Europe we simple wouldn’t have this money, which creates and secures jobs. Between the North East Angel Fund and the North East Microloan fund, both of which are funded this way, more than 1500 jobs have been created or secured. On top of this, European investment in the North East is that it encourages other investment from both the private and public sector.”

Mark Walton, MD of Walton Robinson property company in Newcastle

“If we were to leave Europe as a result of the forthcoming referendum, I strongly believe it would be a disaster for Britain. And speaking personally from a business point of view, I foresee the very real prospect of us having to make redundancies, such would be the impact of us no longer being part of the EU.

“We are noticing that people are delaying decisions until they know the result of the referendum, particularly property investors. At Walton Robinson, we work extensively in the buy-to-let market and investors have stopped buying until they can gauge the consequences of a possible Brexit. It is naive to say confidence will not be rocked by us leaving Europe. Hopefully we will not have to deal with the impact of that becoming reality.”

Neil Turner, director at architectural practice Howarth Litchfield

“As an architect, businessman and father of two children I believe firmly in staying within Europe.

“In the same way that British musicians are noted globally for their great music, our architects have great a reputation for the quality of their thinking and design of the end product. If we leave, we simply give away this position to others and the intellectual knowledge is lost. Many European landmarks such as Reichstag building in Berlin have a British architect at its core.

“As a large practice we rely on existing companies growing and remaining in the region or new ones settling in here to commission new buildings. Will businesses be so keen to settle here if we are out of the European community? I fear that the region will languish and lose further investment opportunities or European grants, which impedes their success and they simply won’t commission us.

“On a personal level, my children will shortly make significant career choices. Which university, what career and where to stay? The decision affects their future. Both believe passionately that we should stay in and can’t understand who would contemplate coming out. I think they are right. By leaving, I think we remove their chances of working abroad and experiencing Europe and then developing their skills in this country.

“Our heritage is based on free trade. I believe that politically, economically and socially we are stronger in the club of Europe. I remain confident that the vote will be to stay in because all the evidence shows that we risk further austerity and recession if we leave.”

Bill Abbott, Managing Director at HydroChem

“In all I feel the cost and complicated methodology of the European Union, its laws and its complex lack of accountability needs to be finished.

“There are £8bn reasons to go and be a successful independent nation with worldwide prospects. I vote leave. Let the British people look after themselves without the political elite who mainly have not worked in their lives or understand the real meaning of life retire and leave it to the people who can look after Great Britain.

“My concern is for small businesses that have to pay the price of a higher national living wage. This in itself is good for the UK people but more economic migrants are now seeing the UK as El Dorado with Romanians and Bulgarians getting up to 6 times their normal salaries to work here which has an effect of reducing wages to British workers.

“The trading block with the Europe wide governing (I don’t understand what this sentence is meant to say. The Europe wide governing I think needs to be rephrased) is crippling the once-termed Common Market. There is a lack of accountability and it is seen that every year there are more rules and more money required for less power to the UK.

“In my opinion, this day will be the single most important decision in our lifetime.”

Rob Charlton, CEO of Space Architects

“From a business perspective I see two key aspects of the referendum. Firstly, the short term economic impact – the economy continues to be fragile and we haven’t truly recovered from the recession. We are already seeing investment in London slowing which is reducing construction output, therefore it is not unreasonable to connect the reduced investment to the uncertainty around Brexit.

“My concern is that with such a fragile economy a large change poses a huge risk, with unknown and potentially adverse implications for jobs and investment. It is a realistic scenario that we could easily slip back into recession.

“Secondly, we now operate in a United Europe, which makes doing business very easy at the moment. Europe provides many opportunities to businesses on our doorstep. It is not possible to predict what a Brexit would do to these relationships however it will not improve them and will undoubtedly have a negative effect over the course of the next few years.

“The other area of debate is around immigration. At its simplest level, without friends from Europe many parts of our economy would struggle for skills and resource. In construction alone without a European workforce we could not achieve the outputs we do, particularly in London.

“In the years ahead I believe we owe it to Generation Y and Z to be part of a larger cultural base. With an increasingly digital future the world is smaller and barriers are a dated concept.”

Raman Sehgal, Owner of Newcastle-based brand communications, marketing and pr agency ramarketing

“As a growing creative, digital and PR business that exports its services internationally, Europe is a vital market for us. Being in the EU means we can grow our company and continue to create more jobs here in the North East without any additional trade barriers.

“We have directly benefited from being in the EU when it comes to business funding and graduate recruitment, so it will be sad to see such initiatives removed. Above any of the business arguments, given the current global challenges in terms of terrorism, this is not a time for segregation.

“My generation is multicultural, cosmopolitan and well-travelled. Being part of a European and global community is exciting and how things should be irrespective of economic arguments. I certainly don’t want my boys growing up in a nation that said no thanks to the rest of Europe - we want to be alone. Not the best PR strategy for the UK really.”

Alex Jacobs, Managing Director, Northern Secrets

“I fundamentally believe in Europe and that peace, prosperity and working together are progressive and good things for every member state. It is frustrating that many people seem to be side-tracked by one single issue that no-one seems to fully understand. The idea of basing a Brexit vote on one issue alone is ludicrous when so many issues are involved

“We stand to gain one thing only by leaving and that is not paying a membership fee. Instead, we would lose on so many fronts - education partnerships, cultural joint ventures, funding of economically deprived areas, farmers loss of funding, as well as a loss of jobs.

“Back in Germany, the media are reporting that 97% of Germans would like the UK to remain. And the German economic press is reporting that over 200 German businesses with small to medium sized operations in the UK would have to move those to mainland Europe if the UK decided to leave, as they can’t put their business on hold while they wait for the UK to negotiate new trade agreements with their customers.

“My business is all about bringing people here to the UK from Europe for bespoke trips and tours and being part of the EU is beneficial to all aspects of the business including administration, logistics, and investment, and encourages Europeans to visit North East England, supporting the regional economy.”

“Lead not leave, should be our strategy.”

Michael Smith, Corporate Finance Partner at Tait Walker

“The EU Referendum is almost upon us, yet I don’t believe either side has made a clear case for In or Out? In the business meetings I’ve been involved with, there is a strong pro-Remain sentiment in the North East business community but the national polls are on a knife edge.

“For the Remain campaign a number of national and international economic commentators appear to believe that Brexit will result in a significant economic downturn for the UK economy. However the extent to which these comments have been influenced by the UK Government is difficult to say. Certainly the Remain campaign has been rightly accused of scaremongering and exaggerating the impact of Brexit. A more reasoned and balanced argument may have had more influence on the electorate.

“The Leave campaign has explained what it’s against in regard to the EU but it has not attempted to tell voters what the future of the UK looks like post-Brexit. In particular, of most concern to the business community is what economic model the UK will follow with regard to trade agreements and how long these are likely to take to negotiate. I’ve heard a global bank’s chief economist suggest recently that the earliest the UK could exit the EU would be 2020. For North East business and the UK economy such delays would be extremely damaging.

“So a message to both sides of the Referendum. Treat the electorate as grown-ups and give us some balanced, reasoned and sensible arguments to enable the voters to decide.”

Tim Ward, Managing Director, Bid and Research Development

“A place in EU brings guarantees and stability that allows businesses to grow and flourish. Confidence is a key driver of local, national and international economies with all businesses being very risk averse. The EU laws protect workers, flow of goods/trade and stability of currency. Without these things we risk losing some of the biggest companies operating in the UK and putting future investment at risk.

“Large organisations setting up in the UK are vital to our economy both through providing local employment and as the catalyst for the set up and growth of local supply chains. This provides opportunities for SMEs to deliver services/goods to the larger companies supporting the growth of new British businesses- SMEs provide 60% of all private sector employment in the UK (15.2million jobs-BIS 2014).

“The EU investments in infrastructure which can be directly through improved local transport links and roads or internationally through stronger road, rail and sea infrastructure across Europe to improve flow of goods. European money plays a key role in funding almost every significant development across the UK including Wembley Stadium, The Olympic Park, HS2 high speed rail line, Liverpool Capital of Culture redevelopment, The Sage, Baltic and Millennium Bridge and so much more.

“Without the EU we must rely on an unregulated government to take a long term view in investment rather than short term gain in the polls with reliance on our local MPs to campaign to support investment in our regions which doesn’t fill me with confidence.”

Andy Preston, Britain Stronger in Europe’s business ambassador for the Tees Valley region

“I do find it slightly tempting to support the idea of Brexit. As an ideological place to be, it’s full of temptations such as simplicity, patriotism and machismo. I’m also an independent kind of character, so I have big natural sympathies with those who argue for Britain standing on its own.

“But when I looked into issues, I started to see the truth. I am an investor. I risk my own money by investing into businesses and buildings – and overall I do very well. Before I make decisions, however, I usually ask the opinions of experts.

“When it comes to staying or leaving the EU I think there are several kinds of experts to consult - trade unions, businesses, British politicians and world leaders. Tellingly, each one of those groups strongly believes that both you and I are better off if the UK stays in the EU.

“Britain’s Trade Union movement is almost 100% behind remaining in the EU and sees continued membership as being essential to protect workers’ rights and job prospects generally. The majority of businesses are highly supportive of staying in the EU. British politicians who want us to leave the EU can mostly be characterised as either egocentric or eccentric. Tellingly, one world leader who wants the UK to leave the EU is Vladimir Putin, who seeks to destabilise Europe.

“From a personal perspective, I find the intelligent and strong voices arguing for Britain to remain in the EU compelling, and I will be voting that way.”

David Nicholson, Managing Director of Billingham-based Nicholson’s Transport

“If we are to exit the EU, we would be devastated in this region. The north of England is particularly vulnerable as there are a significant number of European companies based here because of our skills base. They were encouraged to come here because of our membership of the EU and if we close that door to them, who can blame them if they want to move on?

“If we do exit, I can only see the North East economy going one way – and that is down. It won’t be immediate, we won’t stop trading overnight, but there is a very real danger that some of the big European companies will move out if their economic stability is threatened. For those large companies, it will simply come down to how easy or how difficult it is for them to trade here. It’s a huge risk to take.

“The Nicholson’s fleet flies the Union Jack and we would love to have a country that can stand alone but the world has moved on incredibly since Churchill’s day. Will future generations thank us for reliving the past or for looking forward where we were at one with the world? Being British, we’ll look for the positives and just get on with it.”

Which commenter best represents your views? Let us know in the comments section below or tweet us @bdailynortheast using the #EuRef.

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