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Peter Box: Post-Brexit, mid-sized cities are key to trading abroad

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No matter the deal agreed, one thing that is certain about the UK’s impending departure from EU membership is that international trading arrangements for businesses and ports will change.

In mitigating the risks of this while negotiating trade agreements with the EU and other global partners, the government’s position will be strengthened by regular dialogue with businesses and ports to understand the impact of new arrangements on UK economic growth.

That is where mid-sized cities have a vital role. The 24 mid-sized cities comprising Key Cities include some of the UK’s major ports like Hull, Tees & Hartlepool, Southampton, Portsmouth and Medway, and host businesses of all sizes and sectors with international trading networks.

We came together to publish our recent report, Key Cities: Cities in Action, to appeal to national and devolved governments to work more closely with mid-sized cities. As a cross-party alliance of city leaders, Key Cities are perfectly placed to facilitate discussions between governments and businesses and ports to drive the UK’s post-Brexit international trade ambitions.

The compact size and scale of mid-sized cities allows city leaders to convene relevant partners to respond swiftly to new opportunities. This quality makes us excellent international trade sounding boards, able to quickly bring together stakeholders involved at all stages of the trading process, from council officers engaged in port health services to directors of large manufacturing exporters, sharing their considerable expertise with national government.

Mid-sized cities are also ideal pilot areas for training courses on new trading arrangements and other forms of export support programmes, facilitating their successful expansion to all parts of the UK.

And beyond immediate post-Brexit contingencies, working more closely with mid-sized cities is a chance for the UK to move into a more innovative 21st century trading model. In a globalised world, international links are not just made between nations. Proactive and outward-looking UK cities are playing a more prominent role engaging with like-minded cities abroad.

One of the recommendations in the Department for Transport’s 2018 Port Connectivity Study was to generate a better understanding of the barriers, challenges and opportunities for coastal shipping. Mid-sized cities, particularly port cities within Key Cities, are ideal partners for the UK and devolved governments to work with to create a coastal shipping development plan that delivers stronger economic growth in the regions.

This could include exploring a pilot of free trade zone status in some port cities, particularly as Tees Valley, a Key Cities member, has been at the forefront of efforts to make the case for introducing this status in the UK.

All the above contributes to the case that mid-sized cities are uniquely placed to be the UK’s international trade flagships in uncharted post-Brexit waters. They have the drive, ingenuity and dynamism to help deliver the government’s ambition to increase total exports as a proportion of GDP to 35%.

We also have long histories of collaboration, with partners and with each other, to achieve common goals. As the UK embarks on a new independent international trade journey, there are no better domestic partners for national and devolved governments.

Peter Box (Lab), leader, Wakefield MDC, and chair, Key Cities

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