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Alexandra Jones: How UK cities can prepare for Brexit

Alexandra Jones
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Securing the best possible EU trade deal will be vital for places and people across Britain, and should be the government’s top priority as we prepare to leave the European Union.

The Centre for Cities’ latest report, Cities Outlook 2017, is our annual health-check on UK city economies and focuses this year on how much and where British cities export.

It finds that the EU is the biggest market for 61 out of Britain’s 62 largest cities, with only Hull selling more goods and services to a different destination (the US). Two thirds of British cities trade half or more of their exports to the EU, with even Derby – the city least reliant on EU markets – still selling a quarter of its exports to EU countries.

The research also shows that British cities would have to dramatically increase trade with other international markets to compensate if there is a downturn in exports to the EU. For example, to make up for a 10% decrease in exports to the EU, British cities would have to nearly double exports to China, or increase exports to the US by nearly a third.

The implications are clear: securing good access to EU markets will be critical for the prosperity of cities and people across Britain. This should not stop the government’s rightful optimism about the prospects of securing trade negotiations with other places across the globe; the government’s recent Industrial Strategy listed six countries (Canada, China, India, Mexico, Singapore and South Korea) as potential targets. Yet, as things stand, these countries combined buy only 10% of British urban exports. Agreeing a deal with the EU should be the absolute top priority.

While negotiations play out at an international level, there are still steps that local leaders can take to boost their area’s prospects. Improving the economic fundamentals of their places, especially by improving skills and infrastructure, to make them more attractive to business investment and exporting firms will help. Some cities may also look to forge international investment partnerships, as in Manchester and Nottingham, to support new developments and signal being open for business.

By investing in local people, transport and skills, cities will not only help sustain and build on existing exporting strengths. They will also help to boost wages and jobs, and help cities weather the economic uncertainty that lies ahead.

Alexandra Jones, chief executive, Centre for Cities

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