It seems impossible to escape Brexit at the moment. The Irish border question, trade and possibilities of ‘no deal’ have dominated the news cycle for the past two years and could continue to do so, right up to midnight on March 29th.
Businesses across Oundle, from a variety of sectors, have voiced concerns about the Brexit negotiations, suggesting they could lead to a higher cost of living and reduce their revenue. They attribute this to the potential loss of trade in and out of the UK, especially from the EU, as well as a possible general economic downturn.
The phrase “Project Fear” recurred in conversations across the business community.
But opinion locally can be as divided as opinion in the national press. Estate Agent Chris Woodford thinks we are already experiencing this downturn, observing a “slowdown in activity in retail and in sales of property”.
Sharon Coleman of Sharman Quinney disagreed, however. “We are still selling really well, and have seen nothing like the uncertainty predicted.”
Nigel Croskell, of Southams, acknowledged that there was uncertainty. “I am not thrilled with how things are going”, he said, focusing blame on the negotiators. “You don’t show your negotiating hand before you have started negotiating”, referring to the “divorce settlement”.
His strongest words were reserved for the political class, dismissing their worries about a strong economic hit. “Mark Carney never gets it right, the economists don’t know what’s going to happen, the IMF don’t know what’s going to happen, the politicians don’t know what’s going to happen, no one knows what’s going to happen.”
Another businessman called Mr Carney’s predictions “guesswork”.
Stuart Blow, of Stu-Pots, said: “I think you’ll probably see 10% [rise in prices] because of the extra paperwork, time, all the people they have got to employ to manage it. You can guarantee it’s going to be the end-consumer, not the big businesses, who will bear the costs.”
He did urge caution, however. “It won’t be the worst-case scenario, it never is.”
Graham Darbourne, from the accountants Bulley Davey, thought that business could slow down, and that potential customers might leave.
All the businesses agreed that the country must leave, citing the democratic process, and some are anxious the result of the referendum will not be honoured. Two longstanding Oundle businessmen, who wish not to be named, are concerned that the “big corporations will not let it happen”.
“It’s the first time the establishment haven’t had their way and had their liberal agenda defeated and they don’t like it one bit.” They think that a so-called hard Brexit is the only way the vote can be respected.
There was no consensus about what deal the government should pursue. Bilal Vohra, from the pharmacy, backed staying in the customs union, Mr Blow backed the Chequers proposal, calling it the “only deal on the table”, while others reluctantly said that Brexit must be delivered in full, with Britain carrying out a clean break from the EU.
One businessman said: “It will be easy to make trade across the world. We had deals all over before, and the EU tied us up.”
Some saw positive potential about leaving the EU that could help the UK. It would greatly help Stu-Pots, for example, if the UK managed to secure a free trade deal with China, something the EU does not have. Mr Blow said: “Deregulation will help us.”
Others took issue with Brexit coverage in the media: “Why wouldn’t you put it down to the general economy? Why put it down to Brexit? What reason do you have to say it’s Brexit?”
Some called for the media to recognise the “positives, not just the negatives”.
All the businesses agreed that a decrease in immigration levels to the UK will not have a noticeable effect on the town.
The Oundle Pharmacy was upfront about its worries, and was the shop most concerned that a deal is reached. They told us how many ingredients in their stock come from the EU, and how it is essential that the UK gains a strong free trade agreement.
They warned of dire consequences. “Stockpiling is happening. Not for individual pharmacies but for wholesalers.” They have found many more products to be out of stock. However, they did think it will be good to leave. “It will allow the UK to make its own trade deals, and freedom to make its own rules”.
East Northamptonshire Councillor, Rupert Reichhold, does predict a minor impact, and emphasised the importance of a deal. He strongly backs Theresa May, his fellow Conservative, to achieve the deal that the country deserves.
“The strength of the town and the country will carry us through this difficult time,” he said.
Businesses were confident in Oundle’s ability to stay afloat. Trendall’s, the butchers, relies on local produce and local customers, so they will not be affected.
Sharman Quinney said that the property business will be able “to adapt to the market, that’s what businesses do”.
Woodfords struck a similar tone, and Southams is just as eager for the negotiations to end.
Some are actually excited about the new opportunities Brexit could bring. Whatever the outcome, business owners just want it over so that Oundle can carry on with business as usual.