How will Brexit affect Cheltenham’s racecourse and farmers?

  • Farming and Racing want a soft Brexit

Following the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU in June, financial services and car manufacturers have lobbied Her Majesty’s Government most vociferously, but they are not alone in having an interest in the UK’s Brexit strategy.

Favourable terms of exit from the European Union are critical to places like Cheltenham. While the Cotswold spa town’s economy relies primarily on the public sector and business services, horseracing tourism and farming supplement income.

In March, the National Hunt Festival brings in £100m. Over four days 250,000 race goers drink 265,000 pints of Guinness, 30,000 bottles of wine and 20,000 bottles of champagne. At the bookies’, £600m is staked.

Thanks to EU freedom of movement laws, Irish racing fanatics arrive in droves; Ryanair, who chartered 30 extra flights from Dublin to Birmingham for last year’s festival, estimates 15,000 of them make the crossing.

But some think Brexit, which could reinstall a hard border between Ireland and the UK, will have a detrimental effect.

Edward Gillespie OBE, who was the racecourse’s managing director for 32 thirty years, sees uncertainty ahead.

“In the short term Brexit’s likely to be a good thing, and in the long term probably fine”, he says.

He adds a caveat: “That’s provided we don’t see visas and charges at airports introduced.”

Tougher border controls could also impinge upon the transport of horses; the British Horseracing Association has set up a Brexit task force to look into the issue.

Activation of Article 50, set to send the pound plummeting, could coincide with March’s Cheltenham Festival.

Mr Gillespie believes there could be a “positive upturn in business” at the track due to the fall in the pound, which will allow Irish tourists to exchange their euros for more pounds.

With greater purchasing power, it remains to be seen whether they’ll spend more or save.

Irish spending has been resilient in tough times. “When the exchange rate was against the Irish there was little impact”, recalls Mr Gillespie, which may suggest they budget in pounds not euros.

Meanwhile, the area’s farmers voice the same concerns about what Brexit may mean.

Presidents of the UK’s four agriculture unions have stressed the importance of “full access to the single market and … a flexible workforce.”

A clampdown on foreign, seasonal workers would be disastrous for Mike Porter, an arable farmer from north of Cheltenham.

Every year he hires around 200 Eastern Europeans to hand pick asparagus, dwarf beans and baby courgettes destined for British supermarkets.

It’s an arrangement that has “worked really well”, he says.

The workers can earn up to four times as much in the UK as in Latvia; he benefits from their efficient and cheap labour.

But, this could be about to change.

He fears “restrictions on seasonal workers” would jeopardise his business model.

“There’s no way we could work the way we do without them”, he says.

Bankers, racecourse directors and farmers don’t agree on much; but, on the importance of EU freedom of movement, they do.