Bristol West is a densely populated, inner-city parliamentary constituency that covers Western and Central parts of Bristol, including the electoral wards of Clifton, Cotham, Redland, Easton and Lawrence Hill.
Known for its diversity and large resident student population, Bristol West attracted a fair amount of media attention during the 2015 general election, with commentators identifying the constituency as a test bed for the predicted ‘Green surge’.
Despite a close fought contest, the Green Party candidate, Darren Hall, a former RAF engineer, who played an instrumental role in the successful Green Capital bid, failed to secure the Party’s first parliamentary seat outside of Brighton, having lost out to Labour candidate Thangam Debbonaire.
Four months on from almost doubling her majority from 35.7 to 65.9 percent of the popular vote, and sixteen months after an estimated 80% of voters in her constituency opted for ‘Remain’ in the EU referendum, I met with Thangam along with a handful of businesses located in Bristol West to talk Brexit.
Fittingly for a meeting in which UK access to international markets after Brexit topped the agenda, the chosen venue was International House Bristol – a specialist language school located in the heart of Clifton near the University of Bristol.
International House Bristol director, Dr Val Hennessy, emphasised how high levels of uncertainty were having a detrimental impact on planning for the future, a sentiment that echoed the concerns of each of the other businesses present: Seetru, Astrum ElementOne and Proctor + Stevenson.
For Dr Hennessey and International House, the uncertainty around Brexit was felt most acutely around what barriers the business might face in terms of EU staff and students coming to work and study there, stating:
“We don't know what will happen to the huge percentage of our clients who come from the EU.”
It would be a hammer blow not only for International House Bristol, but for the city as a whole if restrictions on the free movement of people – even if just in terms of extra bureaucracy - were to have a negative impact on the strong education sector in Bristol West.
Education is not the only service industry in Bristol West that would suffer as a result of immigration controls, however. B2B marketing firm Proctor + Stevenson, represented by co-founder Roger Proctor, suggested that in light of the skills shortages his business faces, strict controls on immigration would compound matters, having a 'strangle' effect on expansion.
Roger also explained that Proctor + Stevenson employs 6 different nationalities, who apart from providing the necessary skills to run a successful marketing agency also bring with them language abilities, which has enabled the business to expand rapidly as part of the single market.
So much so that 50% of the company’s revenue is directly accounted for by EU-27 businesses.
In terms of manufacturing, Andrew Varga of Seetru, a longtime Bristol Chamber of Commerce member and local business leader who has been outspoken on the uncertainty caused by Brexit, explained his predicament:
“Our EU sales go into integrated international just-in-time supply chains, and the effects of customs friction will be disastrous for this part of the business – it is not just the car industry to whom this matters.
“Duty on raw materials imports and final product exports, together with high input costs and the effects of inflation arising from the weak Pound, will put us at competitive disadvantages in the EU’s mature and efficient economies.
“In addition, we don’t want to see the UK diverging from the EU’s harmonised regulatory standards, which currently provide a level playing field across Europe.”
The lack of clarity around legal frameworks after leaving the EU raised by Andrew Varga struck a chord with Chris Vigars of Astrum ElementOne – IP protection experts who work extensively with current EU unitary patents framework. Chris said:
“Uncertainty surrounding Brexit is the biggest single business issue for us. Brexit issues are weighing heavily on our view of the future.”
The key question for the practice is whether they’ll still be able to represent clients seeking EU IP protection come March 2019.
Having listened to business’ concerns, the Bristol West MP reiterated how important it was for her constituents to raise specific concerns around Brexit, aiding her work in Parliament and helping to advocate for a deal which is least damaging for the diverse range of businesses in her constituency.
Thangam stressed the importance of businesses meeting with their MPs to discuss their Brexit concerns, acknowledging the role that MPs play in representing employers and business people in their constituencies as well as residents.
Business West members in Bristol West are just the latest in the region to get around the table with their local representatives to talk about Brexit.
In December Business West hgas organised roundtable events with local decision makers including Swindon MPs Robert Buckland and Justin Tomlinson, in addition to Cheltenham and Devizes MPs Alex Chalk and Claire Perry.