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For cities like mine, Brexit has a price they can't afford

The North East will bear the brunt of the consequences if Britain leaves the European Union, warns Nick Forbes. 

As the council leader of Newcastle City Council, job creation underpins my every aim in the city.  It is both as simple and as important as that.  I know that in every service we deliver, and in every bit of planning and strategy we produce, it all has to build towards a sustainable growing economy that brings opportunity for local residents.  And it’s this same focus on building a vibrant and prosperous local economy that means I’ll be voting to remain in the EU referendum in June.

From developing local businesses and jobs, to protecting working people and supporting our health and environment, Britain’s EU membership is vital to the places we serve.  If we leave Europe, it is our communities that will be hardest hit, and the futures of our local people that will be put at risk.

In Newcastle, since I became leader in 2011 we have spent years working to defy the effects of the economic downturn and spending cuts imposed by Westminster.  We’ve done this by creating the infrastructure for growth, be it building offices or bike lanes, and finding new ways to secure the investment opportunities that underpin thousands of jobs across the city. Look at the skyline in Newcastle and you see cranes because we are building for business. Look at the roads and you see we are investing in making it easier to get around the city.  But economic growth in the UK’s major cities would be put at risk by Brexit.  

Between 2014-2020 the North East’s stands to benefit from £205 million of European Regional Development Fund money which will provide 50 per cent of the revenue or capital funding to support investment in innovation, businesses, low carbon and climate change projects and create jobs.  The EU is by far the UK’s largest trading partner and the world’s largest single market; half of our exports go to EU countries, worth £227 billion in 2014 to the UK economy, and over 200,000 British companies export to the EU.  The economic damage that leaving the EU would bring would wreak havoc on our local businesses and make it harder than ever for Councils to deliver the services people rely on. 

The economies of our core cities have undergone radical transformation since the days when tens of thousands of people did back breaking manual jobs in heavy industry. We now have a modern, diverse, economy with strong companies and sectors, including offshore engineering, professional services and the digital sector.  Right now Newcastle and other major cities are growing and have a bright future.  The recent downturn threatened to derail our aspirations but Brexit could kill them almost entirely.

Local councils have already had to make substantial cuts to their budgets over the last 6 years and leaving the EU will represent a further funding black hole.  The government’s decision to devolve business rates relies on economic growth and so the disastrous economic effects of Brexit could mean catastrophe for our councils’ ability to deliver the services people rely on as our income would simply fall through the floor.

In almost every area of council work, leaving the EU would have a negative impact.  In a reformed EU, the UK’s major cities can be the drivers of a new prosperity and opportunity that leads to greater equality and a more socially just Britain.  But outside it, our economy may crash, the social protections given to our workers could be stripped away and the common standards that help incentivise a cleaner environment wouldn’t be enforced.  So on June 23rd, for the sake of our communities, myself and council leaders representing over 12 million people will be voting to remain. 

Nick Forbes is the leader of Newcastle Council. 

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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