'They need to make their minds up'

On the day after Theresa May lost the Withdrawal Agreement vote and won a no-confidence ballot, residents of Westhoughton had mixed views about Brexit

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It’s a dreary Wednesday morning. Theresa May has suffered the biggest defeat in parliamentary history. Her Brexit deal, which was two years in the making, has been voted down – and it’s back to the drawing board.

To many members of the public it seems like a wasted two years and no one really knows what’s going on anymore. We’ve witnessed so much talk surrounding Brexit over these past two years but what we don’t see on the news is how Brexit is going to affect our own communities. What about the small working towns filled with single parents and families struggling to make ends meet? What does Brexit mean for students and what opportunities will they lose out on?

We know that Brexit is going to have a huge impact on the UK as a whole, but what will be the impact on our own lives? We took to the streets in Westhoughton in Bolton to find out what the residents of this little town think about Brexit.

Across the north, small towns like Westhoughton predominantly voted leave in 2016, but these are likely to be the communities hid hardest by the loss of the EU. In 2016 all 16 Lancashire constituencies voted to leave the European Union. But after seeing that the actual act of leaving is no easy feat, four of those constituencies now firmly want to remain and the other 12 have seen a polling shift towards remain.

In September last year, a poll in Hull North produced the largest swing in the country from leave to remain, with 52.4 per cent of voters saying they would vote to stay in the EU if there was a second referendum. In another poll, Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough was one of the country’s constituencies with the greatest shift from leave to remain.

“It was sold as a good idea at the time but it’s all a big mess now. I’d probably change my vote if we did it again.”

A more recent poll covering the whole of Sheffield suggested that 54 per cent of the city’s residents would vote remain now, compared with only 49 per cent two years ago.

In Tuesday’s Withdrawal Agreement vote all three Bolton MPs voted against May’s Brexit deal. And it’s not just MPs who are recognising the repercussions of leaving the EU – the public are seeing it too. On Westhoughton’s Market Street, Barry Norman, 54, said: “I did vote leave. It was sold as a good idea at the time but it’s all a big mess now. I’d probably change my vote if we did it again.”

After two years and hearing so much about Brexit many members of the public are tired of it and have stopped engaging. Greg Jackson (main picture), 46, said: “They need to make their minds up, everyone is sick of hearing about it.”

Phoebe Birchall, 21, said: “I am still confused over the whole Brexit situation. At the time I don’t think I had enough information about it and how it would affect me. I don’t really keep up with any of it now.”

Phoebe Birchall: ‘I don’t think I had enough information about it.’ Photos: Beth Unsworth

Greater Manchester residents, like those in the rest of the North West and over the Pennines in Yorkshire and Humber, are likely to hugely feel the effects of the withdrawal. In 2007-2014 Greater Manchester received £657 million of European Regional Development Fund money, resulting in over 22,244 jobs being created. Some £276 million of European Social Fund money was used to develop thousands of residents’ skills through investment in training.

Julie Ward, North West MEP, said that even if Brexit doesn’t appear to directly affect people it will affect their wider community and everyone is a member of the chain, whether they like it or not. She said: “We’re all going to suffer, we’re all going to feel the effects, we’re all going to have less opportunities.”

She referred to the closure of Rivington Biscuits in nearby Wigan – which also voted leave – shortly after the referendum. The manufacturer of Pink Panther biscuits faced a rise in the cost of imported materials from the EU because of the drop in the pound.

“You can immediately see a direct correlation between the damage of Brexit and jobs in a community where you can’t afford to have one factory close down. I do think these small peripheral communities are going to suffer.”

An increase in food prices was a concern for some in Westhoughton. Charlotte Bateman, 27, said: “I don’t think our supermarkets will be able to provide us with the cheap products we can get our hands on now, which I suppose would make the cost of living go up.”

Julie Eccles, 37, said: “I think we need a deal to allow us to trade because otherwise countries can try and charge us a higher price for goods that would normally be minimum cost.”

Thirty per cent of the food we consume in the UK comes from the EU, and another 11 per cent comes from non-EU countries but negotiated under trade deals negotiated by the Brussels. According to a parliamentary report published in May 2018, if a trade agreement cannot be negotiated Brexit is likely to result in an average tariff on food imports of 22 per cent.

Although this wouldn’t necessarily result in a 22 per cent price increase for consumers there is no doubt that the prices paid at the checkout will increase. Dairy, meat, poultry and wine are set to see the highest cost increase – so avoid scheduling too many dinner parties until a trade agreement is agreed.

Students in Westhoughton were concerned that leaving the UK would mean lost opportunities. If freedom of movement was restricted, it would become harder to study and work abroad – particularly disappointing for those who want to avoid hefty UK tuition fees.

Westhoughton, like so many northern towns, voted leave, but polls suggest that might not be the case if there were a second referendum

There are also more than 20,000 EU students studying in UK institutions, which enriches our own student experience, but over the next few years that number is likely to dwindle.

Ciara Brown, 21, said: “My plan after university was to travel and try and work abroad. But now it seems like that dream is out of my reach and it would be impossible for me to get there.”

Ward said: “The idea that we should somehow restrict freedom of movement, particularly for young people who haven’t had those opportunities yet, and that the older generation should’ve voted for young people not to have the same opportunities that they had – I find that very ungenerous.”

One of the recurring reasons for people voting leave was because they saw it as a way to regain control of the UK’s borders. Julie Eccles said: “I think most of my friends that voted leave purely thought about migration and didn’t take into consideration anything else.”

Mark Thomas, 57, said: “We needed to take back control of our country but in hindsight it’s not done that at all.”

Migrants in the UK pay more in taxes than they take out in welfare payments, and are crucial in staffing the NHS, as well as areas of the private sector. The number of people moving to the UK from the EU to look for work fell by 18,000 in 2018 and the NHS in particular is reporting difficulty in recruiting staff. Ward said: “We are only able to address global issues if we work together.”

‘If the government is resolute, the EU will start to negotiate in a serious way’

Westhoughton falls into the constituency of Bolton West. We spoke to Bolton West MP Chris Green to ask his thoughts on Brexit and how it would affect his constituents.

Do you think leaving the EU will have a significant effect on towns like Bolton?
The EU has been on an inward-looking and downward trajectory for many years and therefore is not ready to meet the challenges of globalisation. By leaving the EU, we can focus on not only coping with these challenges but being able to take advantage of these changes.

Do you think the residents of Bolton will be able to notice the impact of leaving the EU on their daily lives?
I can’t predict what impact future technology and innovation on business will have but we will be best placed to take advantage of these changes and deliver the jobs of the future for the people of Bolton.

Having voted against the withdrawal agreement in parliament this week, what do you think would be the best steps moving forward?
The EU will only start to negotiate seriously when we get nearer to the deadline. If the government is resolute, then the EU, who is desperate for the £39 billion of taxpayers’ money, will start to negotiate in a serious way. We will get a deal that is good for the UK and for the EU.

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