On 27th March 2019, two days ahead of what was intended to be ‘Brexit Day’, I visited the border region of Northern Ireland at Derry/Londonderry and met with a group of informed people, including representatives of Manufacturing Northern Ireland, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and planning officers and consultants to discuss Brexit.
The ensuing discussion put in sharp focus the complex issues that Brexit has caused in the area, which I shall highlight here.
To the left at one point stands a recently built house in Northern Ireland - with its access road in the Republic.
Derry/Londonderry is a city of approximately 100,000 people forming one half of an emerging metropolitan area twice that size including settlements in County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. Life in this “North West Region” has always involved an amount of cross-border movement but since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the freedom to live and work across the border has become a feature of the area. Firms draw workforce from both sides; people live on one side of the border and move to jobs, schools and services (including the only hospital in the region) on the other.
Driving the route from Muff village in the Republic to Derry/Londonderry the border is invisible and is crossed several times in a few miles along a fairly straight road - with only the changes in speed limit signs indicating the crossings and recrossings. To the left at one point stands a recently built house in Northern Ireland - with its access road in the Republic.
A hard border has hard consequences
Many of the Brexit impacts relate to businesses. There is a wealth of small, family owned business in the area, many in the agricultural/food processing industry but including high technology services (Seagate Technologies the largest) and quarrying equipment manufacturing.
While the possible introduction of tariffs poses a challenge in a no-deal scenario, the real risks lie in the non-tariff obstacles that firms would face. A clear example lies in the absence of any notifiable agency in the UK to provide the necessary safety approval for quarrying equipment. Without such approval, exports would be curtailed to anywhere in the world, let alone the EU – an open goal for Chinese manufacturers who do have such agencies.
Food security is a serious issue. The island of Ireland produces an excess of beef and milk but has a serious dearth of fruit and vegetable growing, both sides of the border. For Northern Ireland, the loss of access to the existing EU markets for beef and milk could not be offset by any increase in trade across the Irish Sea to GB. We were told starkly that there is a real risk of food shortages while, within days, farmers could be forced to start slaughtering and disposing of unwanted and unmarketable herds.
In the face of Brexit uncertainty, firms have been taking preparatory action. Some have opened outlets on both sides of the border; some are relocating; and many have sought flexibility in short-term contracts and hiring agency staff rather than permanent employees. Despite record amounts of cash in the banks, little or no long term investment is taking place.
There are real fears of a hardening border: for Derry City and Strabane Council, the prospect is of a sharp increase in housing demand and need as people seek to relocate close to their existing jobs and schools. For Donegal, the fear is of villages turning to ghost settlements as people depart across the border.
In this context, it is a challenge to plan and to secure reliable forecasts and evidence for the emerging DCSC Local Development Plan. Moreover, there are growing concerns over environmental governance if/when the UK leaves the EU. The EU currently provides a mechanism to call governments to account: the lack of a functioning Northern Ireland Executive means that while reviews are under way in the rest of the UK, nothing is happening here to replace the role of the EU.
The stark warning is that either the UK aligns with the EU in the host of standards and controls or there will be a hard border, with equally hard consequences for the area.
The message from the meeting is clear: no deal is not an option for the North West Region.
Ian Tant is President of the RTPI.