As Article 50 is triggered, how will being outside the EU impact on the Grimsby area?

By Grimsby Telegraph | Posted: 29 Mar 2017

Today marks a monumental day in British politics, with the Prime Minister scheduled to trigger Article 50. But what will it mean for the future of Grimsby's growing offshore wind industry? Parliamentary Correspondent Patrick Daly finds out.

IN WHAT is said to be a seven-page letter, Theresa May will explain to the European Union today that Britain wishes to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

In short – she'll be telling the other 27 countries that the UK wants out.

North East Lincolnshire certainly voted for that very outcome, with 70 per cent of the electorate opting to leave during the referendum last June.

But how will being outside the European Union impact on the region? There is a desire to get on with the business of Brexit amongst many businesses but one key industry which has been cautious since the result is the offshore wind sector.

The likes of Dong Energy, Siemens and E.on have ploughed so much money into the Humber that it is certainly too late to reverse the ship. The world's largest wind farm, Hornsea, is now in the early stages of being built.

But Brexit has called into question the longevity of any investment, especially if it is harder to export energy and associated manufacturing once the UK market is catered for.

There are positive signs emerging. As reported in the Telegraph, a recent report predicted that the offshore sector will be worth £2.9billion to the UK economy by 2030, with the Humber playing a key role.

But industry officials have warned of the "risk" involved in stepping into the unknown.

Dr Nina Skorupska, chief executive of the Renewable Energy Association, told the Commons' Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee that Brexit could mean it was "hard to continue with investment in key areas".

"It will be hard to know the rules of the game going forward for energy," she said last Tuesday, when asked about Brexit's affect.

One vocal remain supporter is Nick Clegg, pictured below, the former deputy prime minister and now Brexit spokesman for the Liberal Democrats.

In an interview with the Grimsby Telegraph, the Sheffield MP said the long-term "disruption" of Article 50 being triggered could see the big energy companies turn their back on the Humber and the UK.

He said, as it currently looks, the UK will leave the single market and, with that, those generating offshore wind will find new obstacles in their way when looking to export energy outside of the domestic market.

Mr Clegg said: "The reason we effortlessly import and export energy is because all the norms, standards, certifications and technical interface between the energy market and the rest of the European Union and ourselves has been brought under one roof.

"Or to put it more plainly, 28 rules and 28 bits of red tape governing renewable energy have been replaced with one.

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"Is it sometimes a fiddly business? Yes. Is it sometimes an imperfect business? Yes. But we will – or at least this is what Theresa May has said we will – interpret this very narrow Brexit victory last summer to say that under no circumstances will we abide by the rulings of the single market.

"Well, in that case we have made our choice. Then clearly you can't (trade freely) and clearly there will be disruption."

Mr Clegg has experience in this field as well. When he was deputy PM in the Coalition government, he was involved in thrashing out a deal with Siemens to secure the location of their wind turbine blade factory in Hull, on the north bank of the Humber.

The ex-MEP is not confident that the company would have made such a decision in the present circumstances.

"I remember going up (to the Humber) when I was in government," he continued.

"Gosh, I remember spending months and months and months trying to get Siemens to agree the City Deal and sign on the dotted line.

"They are a major European and global company. And they essentially invest their money where they like. Again, it is not that complicated.

"If you are inviting them to invest in a market where it is going to go through years and years of change and turbulence and uncertainty, they could choose nonetheless to invest.

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"But you would have thought that, as night follows day, they are just as likely to say, 'Well, we'll wait for a while' or 'We'll invest our money in a safer environment somewhere else'."

It is not all bleak though, said Mr Clegg. Britain's natural conditions lends themselves to a prosperous offshore industry, he pointed out.

Mr Clegg said: "What as least we've got going for us is that we're a windy island – and, particularly off the shores of the Humber, the waters are still shallow.

"At least the weather and the shallowness of the sea are parts of the Humber that won't be affected by Brexit," he joked. "But pretty much everything else will be."

Melanie Onn, MP for Great Grimsby, said that, so far, companies in the sector had continued to honour their promises of investment in the Humber. Five winds farms are currently operated out of the town.

While a remain campaigner during the referendum, Ms Onn says she "accepts Brexit is happening" and continues to prioritise her fight to ensure workers' rights and the economy are not jolted by the schism with the EU.

"I said during the referendum campaign that coming out of Europe could be a risk to international companies especially if it resulted in higher import or export duty," said Ms Onn.

"But Siemens did invest. We have seen Dong commit to putting their operations and maintenance base in offshore wind. Investment has still continued."

The Labour MP argued that the Government must move beyond its "lukewarm" support for offshore wind, a position she said had been taken up since the 2015 general election, if it is to make a success of Brexit.

Dong Energy certainly did not exert any sense of wanting to reverse their investment at a recent meeting with Yorkshire and Humber MPs in Parliament.

Brent Cheshire, the Danish company's UK chairman, enthusiastically told MPs that his company was looking to create "life-long jobs" for young people in the Humber.

"Hull and south side of the Humber are the right places to do that," he said.

The careers would be in the maintenance of the wind turbines on the Hornsea wind farm and others, he explained.

Mr Cheshire, a geologist, said Dong wanted to create a centre which excels in making and maintaining high-end camera-fitted drones to capture what is going on at sea with the turbines.

"Drones and visualisation – it is a new world," said Mr Cheshire.

"I need a lot of highly skilled people coming out of university, whether that's apprentice-level or university-level apprentices, and to come out and take life-long jobs.

"We can get in very good people but we want to give kids a very clear line of sight for a long term-job. There is a real opportunity here."

Cleethorpes MP Martin Vickers sought guarantees that training would be available on the south bank of the Humber, asking whether Grimsby Institute would be included as an industry education hub.

Dr David Richards from the University of Hull, who are working with Dong on the training, said the institute would form "part of the thinking along the pipeline".

CATCH, a renewables and technology college in Stallingborough, was already playing a role, said the pro-vice-chancellor for research and enterprise at the university.

But Mr Cheshire said the training foundations had to be laid "quickly" to address the needs of the industry.

"We can't sit and wait. I worry there will be too much consultation and not enough action," he said.

So while some high profile figures fear the future could look bleak after Brexit for industries looking to export, it seems the offshore sector is preparing to dig-in for the long-haul.

With talk of "life-long jobs" and setting up training hubs in the Humber, it suggests the industry is looking to get settled and not to cut and run.

That is, as long as it stays windy on the Humber – and, as Mr Clegg says, there's a strong chance of that.

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