I‘ve spent the last five years at techUK, dealing with issues ranging from generator emissions compliance to cyber security, taking in climate change, data protection, data sovereignty, energy costs, security of supply and physical resilience.
Now we need to revisit all these issues in the light of Brexit, but until we know the form that our future relationship with Europe will take, we are in limbo. The impact of Brexit depends on government policy actions. And it depends on us – how well we prepare as a sector and how clearly we articulate our needs.
Let’s start with the sector. Brexit, like any large scale change, presents both risks and opportunities.
How much will change?
Reaction so far has been mixed. Some operators predict little change, some are already feeling adverse effects and others are busy developing strategies for a range of different outcomes. Most say that the real impact will not be felt immediately. Projects to build or expand UK facilities take several years to deliver, so it will be a while before the statistics show the effects of any which are delayed or offshored.
Our businesses are agile and adaptable but we are not free agents. We operate within a complex set of regulations and policies. So we now depend on government to demonstrate similar agility in making policy decisions and in implementing them with real urgency.
The problem is that policy development is usually very slow, so government needs to act with entirely uncharacteristic speed.
This is where I come in, but we are a little outside the normal rules of engagement for policy dialogue. Usually government proposes a measure of some kind and we can then choose to support it, to ignore it if it won’t make much difference, or to throw all our teddies out of the pram.
What are we aiming for?
On this occasion, despite this week’s statement from Prime Minister Theresa May, there is still no policy. So the best way we can help is by articulating exactly what we need. The government may not agree with everything we say, or be in a position to provide the necessary assurances just yet, but we need to start the debate.
There are lots of questions to answer. How do we mitigate these new and unexpected risks? How do we ensure that we can continue to process, manage and store EU citizens’ data in the UK and move it freely and safely between the UK, the EU and the US? How do we protect foreign nationals working in key roles in data centers? How do we fill skills gaps that cannot be met from our domestic pool of talent? How do we avoid tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade in services without access to the Single Market? How do we remain competitive when commodity prices rise as sterling falls? Can anything positive be salvaged from all this mess?
There is still no policy - so the best way we can help is by articulating exactly what we need.
We think it can. We have identified seven areas where policy can make a difference: uncertainty, data flows, trade, skills, energy costs, inward investment and environmental regulation. Even the most intelligent policy can do little more than mitigate risks in the first three areas, but on issues like skills, energy, inward investment and environment, Brexit could generate opportunities for the sector if handled well.
We asked government to minimize uncertainty by making immediate commitments to protect data flows, to ensure that UK data governance laws will be adequate, and to prioritize access to the single market in negotiations.
We also asked for a skills-based migration policy, for non-British EU nationals working in data centers to be protected, for better mitigation of energy costs, particularly the non commodity elements, and for the UK’s offering to inward investors to be upgraded.
While we agree that standards and targets be retained, we have urged government to simplify environmental legislation and streamline compliance.
We have set out our template for public policy dialog in a document which tells the industry what we are asking government to do, and tells government what we want. The outcome of this dialog will profoundly influence our collective future. Wish me luck!
The Silver Linings report on the implications of Brexit is available from techUK.
Emma Fryer is an associate director at techUK