Portsmouth After Brexit: What Do We Know?

The subject of Brexit comes up in the media every day, but there’s very little information on how it will affect the city. Community reporter Rosy Bremer decided to find out. Additional reporting by Sarah Cheverton.

While Leicester City Council was the first local authority to declare itself in favour of remaining in the European Union during the infamous referendum, Portsmouth City Council was the first to come out for leaving. Little was known in 2016 about how leaving the EU would affect the country as a whole, or the city in particular. Council Leaders then and now have revealed few details. Plenty has been written about Brexit but local facts are hard to come by.

What information is out there on Portsmouth and Brexit?

In terms of local media coverage, reporting has tended to be mostly speculative, including vox pops from local residents, opinion pieces, and frustration over Labour’s position on Brexit. Over the last couple of months, however, The News has also raised concerns about the impact of Brexit on the council’s property portfolio, fears that Portsmouth could become ‘a targeted entry point’ for illegal migrants post-Brexit, and of course, ongoing coverage of Portsmouth North MP, Penny Mordaunt’s support for the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal.

But evidence on how Brexit might affect Portsmouth is somewhat sparse.

In January 2017, the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) released a report on the likely local impacts of Brexit, which found that ‘while a significant proportion of Solent’s sectoral specialisms are in manufacturing sub-sectors, UK trade patterns suggest they are likely to face limited risk. While the impact of reduced migration is likely to be felt most in Portsmouth and Southampton.’ It concludes that to ‘fully understand how Brexit will impact the Solent LEP area, we recommend specific research that establishes, among other things, how reliant local businesses are on inward migration and the impact of regulation on growth. This would involve primary engagement with the local private sector and academia to understand if the issues are of significance to the local economy.’

A 2017 study by the London School Of Economics provides data on the likely impact of both a hard and soft Brexit on cities in the UK. For Portsmouth, the report predicts a hard Brexit would result in a 2.2 per cent reduction to Portsmouth’s GVA (Gross Value Added, measuring the value of goods and services produced locally) and a soft Brexit resulting in a reduction of 1.2 per cent.  Forecasts can, of course, be wrong but in the absence of other available data, decision makers have nothing else to inform their planning.

Earlier this year, Best for Britain, a Remain-backing pressure group, launched myeu.uk, an open source tool that allows you to search by your location or postcode to see the investment and funding from the EU in your area. For Portsmouth, MyEU reports £13 million in funding for Portsmouth from the EU, predominantly linked to the University of Portsmouth.

What Brexit planning has Portsmouth done?

On 14th November 2017, Cllr Ben Dowling asked then-leader, Cllr Donna Jones, ‘What planning and preparation has Portsmouth City Council undertaken for changes caused by Brexit?’

You can see the full exchange in the video below from 2 hrs 2 mins to 2 hrs 20 mins.

Cllr Jones immediate answer seemed to suggest planning and preparation for Brexit wasn’t possible as negotiations were ongoing and therefore it was hard to anticipate ‘what the issues will be’ come March 2019. She then identified two key issues linked to Brexit and Portsmouth in particular:

  • The port and the impact on passenger ferries and freight, the Leader said, ‘will and could be affected by leaving the European Union’
  • The interests of businesses in the city and the importance of them being represented in central government: ‘A lot of lobbying has been undertaken,’ said the Leader, and ‘we have met with an awful lot of businesses’, including the largest employers, ‘to understand what issues they have.’

Cllr Dowling asked ‘whether any modelling has happened, particularly around the ferry port,’ as in his own meetings with local businesses, he found many had undertaken ‘detailed business modelling [on]…the various scenarios that could happen as a result of Brexit.’

The Leader said that ‘no specific modelling has been done because at the moment it’s very difficult to know what to model it on’ as negotiations were ongoing. She then shared local actions relating to Brexit and the International Port:

  • A planned meeting with the Minister from the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU), Steve Baker, and Brittany Ferries about their concerns, ‘which are around getting people on and off ferries: how quickly will it be, what will the UK Border Agency look and feel like.’
  • Brittany Ferries are working with ports across the country, including Dover, and DExEU to understand the impact on freight
  • The Leader was the Brexit portfolio lead for the Key Cities group (a group of 21 cities representing medium sized cities in the country) and was working closely with Southampton City Council ‘because of course our whole sub-region…benefits from particularly the very high number of cars that come in from Europe through the port of Southampton.’
  • Within the Council, the Leader  and Chief Executive, David Williams, are supported by Paddy May of the council’s Strategy Unit, and Tristan Samuels, the Council’s new Director for Economic Growth and Regeneration

Finally, Cllr Dowling pressed the Leader for more information on the impact of Brexit on the University of Portsmouth. The Leader confirmed that she wanted to make sure the voices of the ‘public sector, such as universities’ are heard, including on:

  • research funding
  • the impact of changing immigration policy
  • the impact of Brexit on the number of applications from foreign students

Although the Leader made reference to a forthcoming meeting ‘in the next couple of months’ with then-Brexit minister, Steve Baker, but no visit was ever made. An FOI request submitted by The News revealed confusion around why an invitation to a DExEU minister, Suella Braverman, had not yet resulted in a visit to Portsmouth, despite ongoing concerns about Brexit’s impact on the International Port.

Overall, my investigation yielded little information on the Conservative adminstration’s efforts to plan for Brexit.

This year, leadership of the Council went to the Liberal Democrats, who always wanted to stay in the EU. Cllr Ben Dowling now finds himself on the receiving end of questions about Brexit, as the Cabinet Member for Planning, Regeneration and Economic Development.

I asked Cllr Dowling whether the Solent LEP’s forecast had ever been discussed by the council as a whole. It hasn’t.

The study forecasts that by 2030 there will be 12,000 fewer working-age people in the Solent area.  This is a startling finding, given that pre-Brexit forecasts predicted an increase of 11,000 in the working-age population. It also compares less favourably to the South East as a whole and presents the local authority with the challenge of delivering services with a smaller pool of labour, a decreased taxation base and reduced potential for output and economic growth. However, fewer available workers post-Brexit may lead to an improvement in working conditions and wages as employers have to up their game to entice us to work for them.

I asked Cllr Dowling what incentives the Council are planning to attract workers from other parts of the UK, as there would be fewer people from the EU coming to work in Portsmouth.

‘We’ve got a challenge around key workers: teachers, doctors, nurses, care workers,’ he said.

‘As a Council, we’re looking at housing. We’re looking at providing housing specifically for those types of workers, so if we want to bring those types of workers to the city it is important that there is suitable housing.

‘There is a shortage of lots of types of housing. Encouraging developers to come forward with lots of types of housing stock is very important,’ Cllr Dowling said. ‘Generally, there is a positive. Private rented sector provision (PRS) is coming forward. Confidence in the city is increasing so investment is increasing. The two towers development [known as Portsmouth Point] opposite the railway station includes PRS development. I suspect we will see more of that type of development coming forward. We want to build not just affordable housing as defined by the Government, (which is 80% of the market rent) but genuinely affordable – more like 30-50%.’

He concluded, ‘To ensure that Portsmouth has the housing it needs, we need to ensure there is not just one type of development but housing across the board.’

However, so far, this has yet to come to fruition, as the two towers development, Portsmouth Point, was granted planning permission but has no provision for affordable housing. Portsmouth Labour Party housing campaigner Cal Corkery has raised repeated concerns about the lack of affordable housing across the city, including on proposals for the former sorting office on Slindon Street. This issue has also been reported on by S&C.

Cllr Dowling mentioned a local Brexit Steering Group working on making arrangements for the queues at the ferry port likely to result from post-Brexit customs’ checks.  The Steering Group is made up of representatives from the International Port, other transport authorities and Council officers.  It aims to meet monthly and liaise with the Council, but how it will talk to decision makers has yet to be worked out. A request to the Council Leader about which elected Councillor will take the lead on Brexit has yet to be answered.  A similar question to Cllr Dowling asking why no workers or trade unions are on the Brexit Steering Group has also yet to be answered.

It would appear then that in the City of Portsmouth, the first authority to set the national trend for leaving the EU, the Council is only just beginning to prepare for Brexit.  While political efforts seem concentrated on the ferry port queues, there remains much work to do in smoothing the bumps in the road to Portsmouth’s future outside the European Union.

Find out more

See our related story on how Brexit’s impact on council services.

MyEU – search to see EU investments in your area

Solent LEP report – Baseline forecasts and the implications of Brexit

LSE report – The local economic effects of Brexit

This story is part of our ongoing series from our #ReclaimTheNews team, a group of local residents trained in investigative journalism in partnership with The Centre for Investigative Journalism. The group now forms S&C’s Community Reporting team. Check back regularly for more news from the team and help us to spread the word by sharing their articles with your friends and networks.