Interview: "Cities and regions stand to lose out if Brexiteers get their way", warns Kevin Peel

This week in the Committee of the Regions, local and regional politicians from across the EU came together to discuss the future of cohesion policy. Arguably the EU's most successful programme, cohesion funding has seen hundreds of billions of euros invested in Europe's most underdeveloped regions to help them achieve their full potential and create a level playing field across the EU. With the UK referendum on membership of the EU dominating headlines, we spoke to PES Group member Kevin Peel, member of Manchester City Council, about what membership of the EU means for the UK's cities and regions.

How has the EU's cohesion funding impacted on your region?

The North West of England has benefited significantly from the EU's regional funding programmes. My home city of Liverpool - left to go into "managed decline" by Conservative governments of the 1980s and early 90's - was lifted off its knees thanks in large part to EU investment (which was later topped up with investment by the Labour governments of the late 90's through to 2010). In total, by 2020, Merseyside will have received £1.7 billion funding from EU cohesion funds, transforming the face of the city of Liverpool and creating or protecting tens of thousands of jobs across the city region.

The more rural areas of Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria have also secured hundreds of millions of pounds of cohesion funding over the last two decades, focused on rural development, improving transport infrastructure, skills and training, and targeted investment in key industries such as science and technology in Cheshire, manufacturing in Lancashire and tourism in Cumbria.

The city of Manchester which I represent has similarly benefited from cohesion programmes. Following a resolution I put to our council meeting last autumn, Manchester City Council carried out an economic impact assessment of EU membership on the city. The results make for grim reading for supporters of Brexit. The findings make clear Manchester's particular success in leveraging European investment and bringing together multiple funding streams to deliver our growth objectives as a city.

It is difficult to travel through the city without passing a number of EU-funded infrastructure projects, and the wider Greater Manchester city region is receiving over £350 million of ERDF and ESF funding in the current budget round alone. Recent examples of new facilities and infrastructure include a £23 million investment in the National Graphene Institute, a £7 million investment in the Sharp Project - visited by PES Group members last year – and a £10 million investment in the extension of our tram network. 

Beyond direct cohesion funding, Manchester's universities are extremely successful in attracting European research and development money (and EU students, who generate £90 million a year for the city's economy). Examples include contributions to the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute and participation in both the Graphene Flagship and Human Brain Flagship. With budgets of €1 billion each these Flagships are the largest R&D and Innovation investments ever made in the EU.

How would a 'Brexit' impact on Manchester and the wider region?

In addition to losing this public funding, the private sector will be impacted by Brexit too. The EY Attractiveness Survey found that GM city region is the third most successful area in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) in the UK. On average the UK receives £26.5 billion FDI each year from other EU Member States. When surveyed in 2015, 72% of foreign investors cited access to the single market as a key reason for their investments and a third said they're already freezing investment through to 2017 to await the outcome of the referendum. It stands to reason that Manchester will suffer disproportionately from the loss of FDI if Britain votes to leave.

It isn't just big business which stands to lose out in the result of Brexit: a quarter of all SMEs in Manchester have dealings with international markets, with Europe the primary market for 80% of them. Across the region, 8,000 small businesses have received funding and targeted support to help them grow through EU-funded business growth hubs.

Despite this sustained and significant investment and the wider benefits, only 9% of UK respondents to a survey on cohesion funding had any awareness of EU investment in our country. This figure is shocking and shows we have some urgent work to do to highlight the very visible and direct local benefits of our EU membership during the Remain campaign.

Cities and regions stand to lose a great deal if Britain leaves the EU. It's our responsibility to clearly make the case to stay and alert people to the very real local risks of leaving.

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