For months now, councillors running Leeds City Council have given into a state of shock following the EU referendum. They’ve gathered their officials in the ivory towers of Civic Hall to publish reports on economic uncertainty, discuss the stalling of key investment decisions and pontificate on a second referendum.
Incredibly, despite the passing months, they’ve yet to show any signs of exploring new opportunities for international trade between Leeds, its counterparts across the Commonwealth of Nations and beyond.
Last week I used my maiden speech in the Council Chamber to call for an international trade envoy for Leeds – an appointment dedicated to increasing trade and investment into the city – and to forge relationships with investors before the formal process of leaving the EU begins.
With the fastest growing economy and the largest financial sector outside of London, the Leeds city region should emphasise its position as a platform for trade and make the most of new opportunities by amending pre-planned regeneration schemes, such as South Bank Leeds, to cement the city as a showpiece for international trade in an otherwise domestically focussed Northern Powerhouse.
This is a confluence of opportunity that won’t deliver itself. It will require a proactive vision to reinvigorate Leeds’ manufacturing heritage and open the floodgates for investment in new high-tech industries.
It is, after all, businesses that drive growth in employment and the security of jobs, trade and investment is likely to be a critical measure of public satisfaction post-Brexit.
The jobs market in Yorkshire today isn’t what it was when Britain joined the Common Market in 1973. The UK market itself has been continually evolving. It is a different market altogether – one that’s competitive and aggressive but equally full of opportunity. We’re no longer in a localised trading place and there’s no reason for us to be restricted by national or continental borders. Britain is at the heart of a truly global market and driving it is a global race, a race we’re all in and one we must now set our sights on leading.
But if we’re going to compete, succeed and win in that global race it will fall to the great cities like Leeds to shape the route Britain takes. That’s why it’s so important to get our players on the field at this early stage and have a trade envoy for Leeds working in conjunction with the new Department for International Trade.
The road ahead will be long but there’s no reason why we can’t take the first steps now. Like those Yorkshire athletes who romped home at the Rio Olympics, bringing 14 medals back to the county, being a successful city of international trade requires stamina and determination.
We will have to be agile and resilient to achieve the outcome we want, which is why it’s all the more frustrating that the approach of councillors has been lax. They may be feeling that the challenge of a long distance run is too daunting but they should take inspiration from what happened only a few weeks ago when we witnessed competitors achieve personal and record bests in the Paralympic Games. Letting nothing stand in their way, Paralympians of all nationalities overcame obstacles most of us would easily concede to and it is exactly that determination that is required to make a success of Brexit.
Yorkshire’s trading story remains a positive one: we’re selling tea to China, vodka to Poland and cheese to France. There’s a baker in Dewsbury exporting naan bread to India and a company in Armley selling coffee machines to the Italians. Businesses are already doing incredible things and there’s a wealth of opportunities out there if we choose to follow their boldness.
Brexit need not provide a reason to doubt our abilities but embolden our determination to take advantage of the opportunities before us. Three months on from the referendum UK manufacturers have reported a rise in exports to their highest level in two years; retailers reported a rise in sales; economists have revised previously pessimistic forecasts following a rise in activity; and the world economic forum has ranked Britain among the world’s best countries for business.
Leeds has an opportunity to put down a marker in the months ahead and set into concrete the foundations that will make the city the centre of international trade in the North.
Follow Cllr Stephenson on Twitter: @Stephenson_Ryan