Brexit: We need to nail the detail on Yellowhammer’s No Deal risk to Scotland – Cliff Hague

Regional divides within the UK are extreme and widening, but he Operation Yellowhammer report displays typical Whitehall-centric blindness to such issues, writes Cliff Hague

In five weeks’ time we could leave the EU without a deal. Scant attention has been given to the potential regional impacts.

The Operation Yellowhammer report from last month displays the same Whitehall-centric blindness to regional inequalities that stoked reaction in the 2016 referendum in “left behind” places, and which has frustrated many in Scotland.

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Compared with other affluent nations, regional divides within the UK are extreme and widening. Westminster’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Inclusive Growth reported recently that the gap in healthy life expectancy between parts of Britain has become as large as that between the UK and Sudan. The risk that a No Deal Brexit could harm some places more than others therefore merits proper scrutiny and transparency. Which towns and regions are most at risk? Without regional intelligence, contingency planning is flawed.

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This is everything you need to know about Operation Yellowhammer

The Yellowhammer report seems to have been compiled by asking Whitehall ministries each to write a paragraph on what impacts they anticipate for their remit, then stitching these contributions together. There was some consultation with devolved administrations, but their responses also seem to have come from within departmental silos, rather than being cross-cutting. So if you want to know what No Deal might mean for Scotland, or for its regions, there is no clarity.

While Gibraltar, gets a whole paragraph all to itself, there are just three instances when differential regional impacts within the UK are highlighted. Yellowhammer warns that possible disruption of HGV traffic seeking to cross the English Channel would produce “significant queues in Kent”, though with only “a low risk of significant sustained queues” at other ports. If the Kent queues disrupt the Dartford Crossing there could be fuel shortages in London and the South East. Then, Paragraph 18, sourced from the Northern Ireland Office, anticipates disruption, job losses, road blockages and “growth of the illegitimate economy”, which “will be particularly severe in border communities where both criminal and dissident groups already operate with greater threat and impunity”. Finally, at sea, there could be 129 EU and EEA fishing boats in English waters on 1 November, 100 off the Scottish coasts, 40 in Welsh waters and 13 around Northern Ireland. “Competing demands on UK Government and Devolved Administration maritime agencies and their assets could put enforcement and response capabilities at risk.” So at least we know that Scotland’s fisheries and the communities linked to them, could be facing choppy waters. But what of the rest of the country?

Techniques exist to analyse the territorial impact of policies, in social, economic, and environmental terms. Essentially they draw on methodologies used to measure climate change impacts. Where and how impacts will be felt depends on the combination of two factors. The first of these is vulnerability. In other words, which areas are likely to be most exposed to what level of risk? The second is sensitivity – if the risk is present, will it make much difference? So, if we take the example of possible disruption to fishing, Aberdeen and Fraserburgh (along with Scotland’s other fishing ports) are vulnerable, but the economic sensitivity to such a risk will be higher in Fraserburgh because the Aberdeen economy is larger, and has more sectors that are not vulnerable to what happens to fishing. Similarly, all the England-based car manufacturers are vulnerable to disruption to their just-in-time supply chains from the continent, but the regional sensitivity to any consequent lay-offs of workers will be greater in the North-East and East Midlands than in the South-East of England. A full territorial impact analysis (TIA) would address knock-on effects across sectors, and combine findings into a comprehensive picture and maps.

It is beyond this short article to do a proper TIA of No Deal: that should have been the job of the UK government and/or the Scottish Government. However, it is possible to raise questions that should be asked, even at this late stage. For example, Yellowhammer anticipates shortages of fresh foods and medicines: are some regions more exposed to these risks than others? If the supply of tomatoes is reduced because of congestion at Dover, will the supermarkets ration supply regionally, or sell their perishable product in places most quickly reached by the lorries once they hit the UK motorways? Are places that are remote from main transport routes and population centres (for example, Scotland, and within Scotland the islands) more vulnerable to the risk of food shortages?

Another possibility flagged by the Yellowhammer report is shortages of medicines for veterinary use. Livestock-rearing regions will be more vulnerable to this threat than will urban areas, and sensitivity will be greatest in rural regions where there is little arable farming, and other sectors such as tourism are weak. Roughly a quarter of Scotland’s cattle are in Dumfries and Galloway, and another 10 per cent or so are in Ayrshire, two of Scotland’s economically weaker regions; so any setbacks to the livestock industry are likely to have more impact here than in Grampian, for example, where the economy as a whole is stronger.

Finally, we might consider the social impacts. Yellowhammer observes that increases in food prices “could impact vulnerable groups”. So where are the places that will be most affected? Glasgow has 56 of the 100 most deprived areas in Scotland, according to the 2016 Index of Multiple Deprivation. There are also concerns that Brexit could put strains on the already fragile providers of adult social care. Care needs are linked to healthy life expectancy and financial capacity to meet costs, so the places with the highest concentrations of poor and ailing people would be most at risk. Meanwhile, if Northern Ireland is destabilised as Yellowhammer anticipates, might there be a risk of spill-overs to community cohesion in parts of Scotland?

Cliff Hague, OBE, is Professor Emeritus in Planning and Spatial Development at Heriot-Watt University