Yorkshire’s export figures reveal reasons for optimism

Yorkshire has long been a county of traders. After all, we didn’t produce all that coal, wool, steel and food over the centuries solely for our own use.

Peter Ward, chief executive of the United Kingdom Warehousing Association.

Instead, we sold it and drove a hard bargain too, earning ourselves a reputation for thrift (not stinginess!) along the way.

So it may come as a pleasant surprise – but certainly no shock – to learn from the latest HMRC figures that Yorkshire exports (i.e. sales outside the UK) rose by 7.6 per cent in the year to the end of March 2019, to a value of £18.1bn – more than double the 3.5 per cent increase seen nationally.

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These figures were welcomed across the region as a sign of its outward-looking commercial prowess, bolstered by the news that Yorkshire and the Humber is now home to more than 7,416 exporters, an increase of 3.5 per cent when compared with the same period in 2017, with an average value per exporter of £585,000.

On the move: The full warehouses seen in March did empty out a little after a new Brexit deadline for leaving the EU was set for October 31. PHOTO: Getty Images

This all sounds rather exciting, but just how long can the upward trend last?

The answer, sadly, can probably be found in a report published in June by the Leeds City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, which warned that the boost in trade could be short-lived, as stockpiling had helped to drive business activity, particularly in the manufacturing sector.

It states: “There are signs that the stockpiling-driven momentum may be tailing off now that the UK’s departure from the EU is less imminent than had appeared in late Q1.”

Why stockpiling should be mentioned in relation to exports was not made clear in the report, but a deeper delve into HMRC’s data on imports from the rest of the European Union indicates a clear connection.

Gateway: iPort Rail, the transport hub connecting the 337-acre iPort logistics park in Doncaster. PHOTO: Ross Vincent

Across the UK, imports from the EU grew by a respectable 4.4 per cent over the year to the end of March 2019 – coincidentally the same rate of growth seen in exports from the UK to the rest of the EU.

Yet the figures for Yorkshire vary to a striking degree. Exports from the region to the EU remained steady throughout 2018 and into the first quarter of 2019 at around £2.74bn – showing no significant growth whatsoever.

But imports to Yorkshire from the EU remained steady throughout 2018 (at around £4.23bn), but then leapt by a whopping 26 per cent (to £5.32bn) in the first quarter of 2019 – a spike clearly attributable to stockpiling.

The stockpiling, of course, came in response to fears of shortages in the event that the UK left the European Union on March 29 – the original deadline – without a withdrawal agreement. Many in the industry believe such a ‘no-deal’ Brexit would inevitably more customs checks and delays at the border, resulting in empty shelves in the shops.

Steve Freeman is managing director at iPort Rail, the transport hub connecting the 337-acre iPort logistics park in Doncaster to international freight networks.

He told Yorkshire Vision: “We have capacity to store 1,500 shipping containers and the terminal has very good transport connections by rail and road, so before 31 March there were some customers using the facility to ship goods into the region early and avoid potential disruption.”

The full warehouses seen in March did empty out a little after the Brexit can was kicked down the road and a new deadline for leaving the EU was set for October 31 – and Mr Freeman has noticed the difference.

“We’re not seeing any evidence of [stockpiling] at the moment – it’s very much business as usual with the turnaround of goods into and out of the site both to and from global markets,” he said.

But as summer starts to give way to autumn in around six weeks’ time, there are real fears that the stockpiling will ramp up again.

“Most warehouses are full at the moment – most of the time they run at 80-85 per cent capacity anyway, otherwise you wouldn’t be making any money – so this October’s [Brexit] deadline couldn’t come at a worse time for the logistics industry,” says Peter Ward, CEO of the United Kingdom Warehousing Association (UKWA).

“It’ll be entering peak season then, distributing in time for Christmas – which includes Black Friday at the end of November – so warehouses would be running at capacity at that time of year anyway.

“Since the Financial Crash there hasn’t been the kind of speculative building of warehouse units that there used to be, and added to that, since the high street has been taking a beating, a lot of its retail activity has transferred to the warehousing and logistics sector.

“Add Brexit to that and you have a ‘perfect storm’ brewing.”

So, looking for a bright side, will renewed stockpiling activity be good news for Yorkshire trade – again?

Well, possibly, but again, any fillip is likely to be short-lived. In its quarterly economic forecast for the second quarter of 2019, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) upgraded its growth expectations for the UK in 2019 to 1.3 per cent (from 1.2 per cent) due to “the exceptionally rapid stock-building early in the year”.

But, reflecting the come-down from the high, the BCC downgraded its growth forecast for 2020 to 1 per cent (from 1.3 per cent) and to 1.2 per cent (from 1.4 per cent) in 2021 after taking into account the unwinding of historically high inventory levels, coupled with weaker business investment.

The forecast stated: “The continued Brexit impasse, including the growing possibility of a no-deal exit, together with the high upfront cost of doing business in the UK and the running down of excess stock, is expected to suffocate investment activity over the near term.”

It added that even this gloomy analysis “assumes that the UK avoids a messy and disorderly exit from the EU”.

Adam Marshall, director general of the BCC, said: “While politicians are distracted, businesses are left with no choice but to try and prepare for the unwanted possibility of leaving the European Union on 31 October without a deal and transition period. Businesses are putting resources into contingency plans, such as stockpiling, rather than investing in ventures that would positively contribute to long-term economic growth. This is simply not sustainable.”

So Yorkshire’s trading position as represented by those HMRC trade statistics may have been somewhat skewed, but that’s not to say that the dawn was an entirely false one – not all the good news hidden in the figures was negated by stockpiling.

A closer look at the data reveals that exports of Yorkshire and the Humber food and drink hit a record £1.2bn in the year to March 2019. That’s particularly significant because of the importance of food and farming to Yorkshire’s economy.

But more encouraging still, some of the region’s fastest-growing export destinations are outside the EU. Yorkshire food and drink exports to Australia grew by 24 per cent in the year to the end of March, while exports of the region’s produce to China surged by 26 per cent.

The fastest-growing market for Yorkshire food and drink, however, was Qatar, where demand leapt by 123 per cent during the period.

Since these export destinations are outside the EU, these trade figures are, of course, immune to the distorting effect of stockpiling.

Which means that this trend – of Yorkshire food and drink suppliers cracking markets further afield – should have rather more longevity than the flash-in-the-pan boost caused by pre-Brexit jitters.