CHURCHES in Lincolnshire are playing a central part in planning for a post-Brexit future, as the county wrestles with migration, farming, and security issues.
The Revd Jonathan Sibley, the Vicar of St Mary’s, Long Sutton, in the south of the county, has brought together dozens of organisations and agencies working in the region to talk about what changes leaving the European Union will bring, and what can be done to mitigate the disruption.
One in ten of those living and working in Lincolnshire come from overseas, most of them workers from Eastern Europe whose future is uncertain as a result of the Brexit vote last year. Despite this, the county strongly voted Leave in the referendum, with two districts — Boston and South Holland — recording the highest and second-highest votes for Leave in the UK.
Last week, Mr Sibley’s forum — Social Issues in the Fens — brought together senior police officers, local government officials, businesspeople, academics, charity workers, and a local MP for the first in a series of meetings to prepare Lincolnshire for a future outside the EU.
The forums, which normally gather twice a year, began about seven years ago. Many years before the referendum, Mr Sibley and his partners tackled some of the issues raised by Brexit when they took part in a scheme intended to soothe racial tensions in Boston, a town which has a large EU migrant population (News, 3 March).
When asked what the Church had to offer the council, police, and other agencies, Mr Sibley said that it could act as a honest broker and neutral platform for collaboration.
ANGELA REEVE PHOTOGRAPHY Preparing: the participants at the Brexit conference in South Lincolnshire“We offer food and hospitality and space,” he said. “Most of these agencies hadn’t actually met each other face to face before. The organisations said this probably wouldn’t have happened if you had not had this idea. It’s about real mission and witness of the Church, being involved in life and community.”
Furthermore, Lincolnshire’s parishes were deeply embedded in their communities and acutely aware of the major issues that needed tackling, he said.
Before Brexit, the forum had identified a need for street pastors, growing isolation among the elderly, and how to integrate newly arrived migrants as among the main issues facing the county.
New problems are arising, however. Last week’s meeting heard from local farmers and businesspeople who not only rely on European workers but also export up to three-quarters of their produce to the continent — business that could be imperilled if the UK cannot reach a deal with Brussels.
Furthermore, many agricultural businesses receive payments through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. “There is already some hesitancy, with people deciding not to [emigrate] here,” Mr Sibley said. “That will have a great impact on the area and the industry. There are considerable concerns.”
In August, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, led an intervention by the Rural Coalition group to warn the Government that exiting the EU without a free-trade deal could lead to a spike in food prices and endanger the country’s ability to feed its citizens (News, 11 August).
The deputy chief constable of Lincolnshire Police, Craig Naylor, told the meeting that international security co-operation was his force’s highest priority. He asked whether Brexit would hamper the police’s efforts to tackle terrorism and smuggling across borders by making collaboration with foreign police forces and supra-national bodies more difficult.
The next meeting in Lincolnshire, in March, will hear back from a series of working groups. It will also be joined by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams, who will speak on the theological and pastoral implications for economies and workplaces that face rapid changes as a result of Brexit.
John Hayes, Conservative MP for South Holland and The Deepings, in South Lincolnshire, pledged to report the forum’s discussion back to Downing Street. Mr Sibley said that parishes across the diocese of Lincoln would also be told of the conclusions that were drawn.
A spokesman for the diocese of Lincoln agreed, saying: “The meetings offer an opportunity for the local church to help facilitate dialogue on current issues in a public setting, and they are indicative of our shared call to love and serve one another.”