The government’s Nissan deal should not be the blueprint for other Brexit trade agreements

Robots making cars in Sunderland. Image: Getty.

 The future of British trade following the EU referendum has dominated political discourse in recent months, and will no doubt continue to do so as Brexit negotiations begin in earnest over the coming weeks. Oddly however, there has been little mention of the one trade deal that the government has already struck following the Brexit vote: its agreement with car manufacturer Nissan to keep its car plant open in Sunderland.

The importance of Nissan and its supply chain in Sunderland is hard to understate, with around 7,000 people employed directly in car-making in the city. As the new Centre for Cities report Cities Outlook 2017 shows, Sunderland is the highest exporter of all cities in Britain, selling over £40,000 of goods and services abroad for every job in the city in 2014 (second placed Worthing sold £30,000).

But take Nissan and its supply chain out of the equation, and Sunderland would have had the 12th lowest exports of all cities.

The political gain for the government in striking the deal is therefore obvious, as the impact of Nissan leaving Sunderland would be disastrous for the city’s economy. And if the government’s industrial strategy and Brexit white paper are anything to go by, we are likely to see other similar short-term deals in future, with both documents outlining the ambition to strike more sector-led deals.

This, however, would be a mistake – for as our research shows, the Sunderland-Nissan deal doesn’t offer a long term solution for either the national economy generally or Sunderland specifically.

In terms of the national economy, doing specific deals with individual companies or sectors will benefit only a small number of places in Britain. As Cities Outlook shows, exporting industries such as cars, chemicals or pharmaceuticals are located in only a handful of places across the country.

And while Sunderland is not alone in its dependence on a single industry – Derby's exports are dominated by Rolls Royce, and Coventry by Jaguar Land Rover – in most cities their exports depend on a broad number of sectors. For these places, trade deals with specific businesses or sectors will do little to support their exports.

Click to expand.

For Sunderland, while a specific deal is a no brainer in the short term, it does little to alter the city's longer term path. Nissan's success in Sunderland should be rightly celebrated, but it also highlights the city's over-reliance on one company.

Sunderland has struggled to attract in business investment in high-skilled work (it ranks 44 of 62 cities for its proportion of jobs in knowledge-intensive business services) and it has the lowest number of business starts of any UK city. Even Nissan does little of its high-value activities in the city – for example, while its Qashquai model is assembled in Sunderland, it was designed in Paddington and engineered in Cranfield.

Without this changing, Sunderland will once again be in the position of requiring the government to strike another short-term deal with Nissan in future, as it did in 1984 to tempt the Japanese company to Wearside in the first place, and which it has done on a number of times since over the last three decades.


So to compliment the agreement that government came to with Nissan at the end of last year, policies need to be put in place now to deal with the challenges that have limited its ability to attract in and grow jobs in higher-skilled activities.

In Sunderland's case this is twofold. The first is to deal with skills. The city performs poorly on a number of skills measures, which undermines attempts to attract in high-skilled jobs. To change this, national and local leaders need to focus in particular on improving GCSE attainment at school level and literacy and numeracy skills in the current workforce.

The second is to improve its city centre as a place to do business. In recent decades a number of local and national policies have subsidised the building of our of town employment space while ignoring the problems of the city centre. This is continuing even now – the local council has used the city-deal it struck with the government to create the International Advanced Manufacturing Park next door to Nissan's plant, on top of securing enterprise zone status for a neighbouring site.

But until very recently the problems faced by the city centre had been ignored. There has, thankfully, been some progress on this recently, but making the city centre a more attractive place to do business needs to be at the very centre of the city's attempts to improve the job opportunities available to those who live in and around it.

Improving exports generally will be critical in boosting growth in the national economy, an issue acknowledged in the government’s recent industrial strategy green paper. But in order to help every city across the UK grow their export base, ministers need to focus on trade deals covering all sectors – and should avoid the temptation to prioritise deals for high-profile industries that will only benefit a small number of places.

Paul Swinney is senior economist at the Centre for Cities.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.