Certain uncertainties

What will Brexit mean for Scottish local government? We can’t be certain yet, says the LGiU Scotland team. The only certainty is uncertainty. 

Uncertainty, of course, is bad news for local government. Just a few questions to start with:

  • Will we exit the European Union?
  • If we do leave the EU, how will that happen?
  • When will Article 50 of the Treaty – the mechanism for leaving the EU – take effect?
  • If we leave, will the government still apply some EU legislation by bringing it into UK law?
  • Would a new Westminster Chancellor champion devolution to cities?
  • Will there be an early general election?
  • Will there be a second independence referendum?

What’s certain in this confusing world?

What we do know is that EU laws still have effect. The EU President Donald Tusk said after the result was announced that until “this process of negotiations is over, the United Kingdom remains a member of the European Union, with all the rights and obligations that derive from this.”

What else do we know? The impact on the economy will be felt differently across the UK. The ‘Emergency Brexit Budget’ will not be implemented immediately. So, for now, there won’t be much official change. Except, of course, the rest of the EU’s attitude to us and the fluctuations caused in the UK and global economies.

The change to our relationship with the EU will have repercussions beyond the formal and the legal.

The referendum was advisory. However, it’s highly unlikely that it won’t be taken forward – not enacting the result of a referendum is rare. Article 50 and the 2-year countdown for leaving the EU may not be triggered until we have a new Prime Minister in the Autumn. A general election could further change the position. There may be a further referendum once the negotiations are completed. Even if Brexit goes ahead without any of this, we don’t know what form it will take – whether we will remain in the European Free Trade Area, for example. It may remain unclear for some time how the EU and member states will view future trading relationships with the UK. We don’t know how EU legislation will be dealt with – would it all be repealed under overarching legislation or dealt with in a different way?

We can be certain that the SNP will take this opportunity to press their case for independence. Scotland voted to stay in the EU by 62% to 38%, with all 32 council areas voting to remain. Despite economic concerns, the Sunday Times found that 52% of Scots believe the country is now likely to become independent within five to 10 years, up from just 30% when the same question was asked in April. An independent Scotland will not, of course, be automatically a member of the EU. Nicola Sturgeon is currently meeting with European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, in an attempt to secure Scotland’s future in the EU.

We do know what a profound effect on local government all of this will have. There is extreme concern in those areas that receive EU structural funds – we are expecting £5.3bn of EU regional funding up to 2020. EU legislation affects nearly every part of the work of local authorities everyday. Employment legislation could be radically changed over time. Procurement is massively affected by the EU. And what happens about TTIP? The free movement and working rights of EU citizens have major implications for communities and local services.

There is also the more immediate impact on local communities of the campaign and result. How can councils bring divided communities together and stop what could be the spread of xenophobia against EU citizens (or any foreigner)?

How can local government as a sector respond? Councils were largely ignored during the campaign but the impact of the legislative changes will be huge on local authorities. We can’t continue to be a sideshow. The sector needs to be active in this – how can we scrutinise and influence what is going on and protect those areas that will lose EU funding? It isn’t clear how parliament will scrutinise what is being negotiated – but individual government departments will be closely involved, as will select committees. Local government should be as well, through whatever structures are set up to make that possible and through its own independent procedures.

Local government has many contacts in Europe and is involved in networks –major cities especially. Those don’t disappear if we leave the EU. Councils, leaders and mayors will need even more now to be champions for their areas and are already stating they are open for business as usual.

What about the burden placed on Scottish local government by this series of votes? If, as is possible, we have a general election in the Autumn, followed by a second independence referendum next year, and even a second EU referendum, we’ll still have the local elections to run in May 2017. Local government registers voters, prepares ballots and ballot boxes, distributes them around the country, runs the counting centres, counts the votes, announces the results and keeps residents informed throughout a campaign. To ask them to do this so many times is to ask a lot.

This blog is full of questions and very few answers – but that is the world we live in at the moment. Let’s remember, though, that despite all this uncertainty and confusion it is local government that keeps things running every day. Which is why it is even more crucial that local government’s voice is heard loud and clear over the future of Scotland in this fast changing landscape.

We will be covering in much more detail the implications for local government over the coming weeks (and months and years…).

Blog by Janet Sillett. Additional content by Charlotte Maddix.

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Photo Credit: Scottish Government via Compfight cc