Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen has slammed a leading business North East business group for criticising the Government’s approach to Brexit.
James Ramsbotham, chief executive of the North East England Chamber of Commerce, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Theresa May explaining that businesses were “exasperated” by the handling of the Brexit negotiations and the lack of information given to firms about their progress.
The Chamber’s intervention came after a series of big businesses warned that lack of certainty around Brexit could see them taking investment out of the UK and put thousands of jobs at risk.
But Mr Houchen , a long-time supporter of Brexit, has condemned Mr Ramsbotham’s comments, claiming he is “disappointed” with the Chamber’s approach.
Mr Houchen said: “The fact is, in Teesside we have some of the world’s most innovative businesses and they are ready for the improved international trading opportunities that Brexit will bring. That is what the people of the Tees Valley and the wider North East voted overwhelmingly for.
“We will not accept a partial Brexit, half-Brexit, or soft Brexit, which will leave us subject to the undemocratic whims of the Brussels establishment.
“The EU is a declining protectionist trade bloc and as an exporting region we need trade deals with fast-growing emerging economies beyond the shores of Europe, if our economy is going to grow.”
The Conservative Mayor has long backed the Government’s approach to Brexit, and recently wrote to all of Teesside’s MPs urging them to reject a House of Lords amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill. The amendment demanded that a final vote be carried out on the final deal to leave the EU.
Mr Ramsbotham declined to reply to Mr Houchen’s comments.
But Redcar MP Anna Turnley has backed the Chamber CEO’s comments, saying that it was “very worrying” that businesses are being excluded from the negotiations.
She said: “Europe is our biggest market and the Government’s own analysis has shown our region could be hit by a minimum of 11%, even if we get a trade deal. The Chamber, alongside large manufacturers like Airbus and BMW who have also shared their concerns recently, just want the government to ensure we don’t lose frictionless access to our biggest market.
“It is telling that James feels, as we get closer to exit day, that he has no other choice but to write directly to the Prime Minister. Instead of demanding unquestioning loyalty to Theresa May, the Tees Valley Mayor should be speaking to his colleagues to ensure North East businesses are being heard.”
Mr Houchen also called on the Chamber to back his plans to form a free port in the North East. Free ports are economic zones that allow goods to be imported, manufactured and then exported from the area without incurring customs tariffs.
He said: “I’m disappointed by the Chamber’s approach. Instead of talking about what they think should happen they should get off the fence and back me and my plan for a free port. By working with me and supporting my plan we could create 17,500 jobs and add £1bn to our region’s economy.
“I’m disappointed the Chamber are yet to back my plans for a free port. 90% the world’s future economic growth is going to come from outside the EU, and cutting ourselves off from this growth, investment and jobs for the Tees Valley is an act of self-harm. It makes no sense for them not to back these ambitious plans for our region.
“We are fully engaged with Government on this issue, just last week I met senior officials at the Department for Exiting the European Union to make sure the Tees Valley’s voice is heard on all aspects of the Brexit process. Part of this was a discussion on devolving money we get back from Brussels directly to regions like ours, including millions of pounds of business support.
“I am confident that the opportunities of Brexit and the business support the Government will provide will ultimately increase prosperity on Teesside.”
While Ms Turley accepts that the free ports can have a positive impact on local economies, she added that they were not a replacement for the single market.
“The potential economic boost from freeports is positive and they have been championed by cross-party leaders in Teesside since before the mayor was elected,” she said. “What freeports are not is a like-for-like replacement for the single market and they won’t come close to mitigating the damage to business and manufacturing from a hard Brexit.
“We cannot afford North East manufacturing to be damaged and for Theresa May and Ben Houchen to finish Thatcher’s work in destroying our region’s industry.”
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