Brexit: why business in England's most deprived town is divided over leaving EU
FT northern correspondent Andy Bounds talks to Oldham companies in the northwest of England to find out why not all support remaining in the EU. 61% of votes in Oldham in the 2016 referendum backed Leave.
Written by Andy Bounds. Produced, filmed and edited by Josh de la Mare.
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The UK may have been split in the Brexit referendum, but those in Oldham knew exactly what they wanted. Some 61per cent of the population here voted to Leave the EU. Two-and-a-half years on, how are businesses feeling about that decision and what it means for them?
Once humming with huge mills spinning cotton, the town has found it hard to adjust since the industry moved to Asia from the 1960s. Many northern towns voted to leave the EU. Politicians called them the left-behind towns. Globalisation has taken secure jobs and changed the make-up with waves of migrants arriving as English people leave.
We're now heading for the village of Denshaw, which is just outside Oldham, to meet a man called Peter Brown, who's a mole catcher. He used the poison strychnine to kill moles for over 40 years, governed by UK parliamentary legislation. And then in 2006 the European Parliament and Commission banned the use of the substance, which he says devastated his business. Peter, just tell us which way you voted in the referendum and why.
I voted for out definitely. When they banned strychnine, it said the EU took the traditional method of trapping. Well, it's just not cost effective on some farms. We need to get out and get out fast. No divorce bill. No more with the legislation. And all those people in businesses that they haven't affected yet, God help them when they do.
Oldham is classed as the most deprived town in England by the Office for National Statistics. Workers earn on average £100 less a week than the national average. Nevertheless, there are new businesses making a go of it. Linda Lewis Kitchens supplies Italian pizza ovens and kitchen equipment to restaurants nationwide. Linda Lewis backed Remain but understands why many in Oldham voted Leave.
I've never had anything to do with politics. I don't even know... well, I knew who the prime minister was, but other than that, I've never had anything to do with politics, but I thought better have a say.
And how do you feel that Oldham, this place you grew up, voted 61 per cent, quite heavily, to leave?
Yeah, I think it's because we do have a lot of immigration in Oldham, and I think that's all that people could see. The biggest problem we've got now is we've got our customers going into receivership left, right, and centre. We've had £20,000 worth of bad debts in the last three weeks. And they all say it's down to Brexit and people not buying.
What would you like to happen now?
I'd like to see the deal that Theresa May has done, to be passed off. If we walk away with no deals, there's no rules, and we've got 27 countries that we've got to renegotiate some kind of agreement with. It's going to be catastrophic. She's got to get on with it and do it, and we're all here holding our breath.
The CBI and other big business groups are firmly opposed to Brexit, but here in Oldham, there are plenty of businesses that believe it will benefit them. Jonathan Beardmore is a financial adviser to wealthy clients at Pearson Solicitors.
I do think it's actually better that the UK makes laws specifically for financial services, and actually for law because we are a law firm, and a financial services practice, which reflect our needs. I don't see how we can get a one size fits all model for places like Greece and also places like Oldham. It just doesn't seem to stack up.
The celebrity cadre who voted Remain are completely aloof. There's certainly a sort of higher educated, Londony-centric feel to the things that they say and the way that they behave. And I think they do tend to condescend to places like Oldham and towns in the north. And I think that's probably one of the main reasons, if we were to rerun the referendum, even if Remain won...and I believe that the Leave vote would increase in places like Oldham.
There's a large Asian community in Oldham that first arrived from Pakistan and Bangladesh in the 1960s to work in the mills. Almost a quarter of the population is non-white and many voted Leave in the hope the UK would strengthen its ties with former imperial countries in the Commonwealth. But Omar Rahim, who founded EnergiMine, a technology business that rewards customers for saving energy with cryptocurrency, voted Remain. He met me in Space, a tech hub in Oldham, to explain why.
Our business is an artificial intelligence business. We develop software for the energy industry. What that means is that the pool of talent that we can pull from is very limited indeed. The biggest implication for us of a hard Brexit is the lack of certainty over Europeans moving to the UK, AND moving to our company, wondering whether they'll be allowed to stay.
Were you surprised at the Leave vote in Oldham?
Probably not surprised overall in Oldham. Whenever local government and central government fail to solve this problem of cohesion, it always causes resentment within the wider community. And in times of continued austerity, people tend to blame what's around them, and unfortunately, that meant immigration.
What would you like to happen now?
I think certainly we need a second referendum. Enough time now has passed so that people can actually see what the implications for Brexit are, and I don't think that information was at hand at the time of the vote.
Oldham's cotton mills fell victim to the global movement of capital after the second world war. Many believe it could suffer again if the UK leaves the EU and investors flee. But what is striking is that the businesses we spoke to, Leave and Remain, have not changed their minds about Brexit. On one thing they do agree, continued uncertainty is the worst outcome of all.