Brexit – local government on the sidelines?

Janet Sillett, Head of Briefings at LGiU, reflects on how local government could – and should – respond as the UK exits the European Union. 

Leaders of local government across the UK have laid out their bottom line in relation to the Brexit negotiations: establishing a principle of subsidiarity; securing and enhancing the legal position of local government; and providing greater fiscal autonomy for local government.

Leaders from the UK’s core cities have also been making the case for sub national government. Following a recent meeting, Core Cities UK chair and leader of Leeds City Council, Judith Blake, said that:

“Post-Brexit, our cities will be more important than ever. We have come together in Birmingham to remind the government that our cities will be key to UK success in the future. It is only by giving more power to place that we can grow our country’s productivity and create real economic growth that means no-one is left behind.”

Is all this a pipe dream? Of course it shouldn’t be – it isn’t asking for the unattainable after all. The principle of subsidiarity should be understood as a basis for all good government. Clarifying and strengthening the legal position of local government post-Brexit must be critical if there isn’t going to be chaos over who is responsible for what. Providing greater fiscal autonomy is more necessary than ever when local government is the key sector with business to grow the economy in a changing and uncertain landscape.

Yet can we be optimistic that the UK Government will respond positively? I just looked through the Brexit white paper – I couldn’t see local government mentioned once. The paper describes how the UK Government ‘will continue to build a national consensus around our negotiating position by listening and talking to as many organisations, companies and institutions as possible’. Of course that will include local government, but why not say that local government is one of the main players here, instead of this – ‘inform [UK] government understanding of the key issues for business and other stakeholders’.

There is no mention I could see of subsidiarity in relation to local government. Nothing about using the opportunity of repatriating laws and responsibilities to strengthen the role of local government. At least Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland get more of a look in – with a chapter on ‘Strengthening the Union’. Though Nicola Sturgeon has not been too hopeful about Scotland being listened to in the negotiations when they happen – “I came down here determined to go the extra mile, to find compromise, to try to find a way to square the circle of the UK vote to leave and the Scottish vote to Remain. I also came here with a very clear message for the prime minister, that so far the only compromise has come from Scottish Government, there’s been no attempt at compromise on the part of the UK government”, as she said after meeting Theresa May for talks with other leaders in Wales.

The UK Government will repeal the 1972 European Communities Act to convert existing EU law into domestic law, with parliament to amend, repeal or improve any law. Local government will be hugely affected by the“Great Repeal Act’.

It isn’t of course just up to the UK Government to consult and suggest changes that could benefit subsidiarity – the sector itself needs to make its voice strongly heard throughout what is going to be a highly complex process.

There is beginning some thinking around this in parliament – there has been support for greater devolution of responsibilities post-Brexit from some MPs and Peers. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration, for example, published a report recently that said that the UK Government should consider devolving responsibility for immigration policy to the UK’s regions and new metropolitan areas to boost integration and economic productivity.

There is a huge amount at stake for local and devolved government in the negotiations for leaving the EU – from the position of EU citizens working in many sectors of the local economy, to how procurement will be framed in the future, from how services will be treated in any bilateral trade deals post-Brexit to how will any gaps in EU funding be met.

There are major challenges for local government – such as how to develop large procurement projects when there is so much uncertainty about future funding and the legal framework. But there could be advantages for local government as well, such as over competition regulations. Some councils would support relaxing of some rules so that they could incorporate more social clauses in procurement contracts, which would make it easier for example to buy locally and more stringent clauses on fair wages to be provided by providers and subcontractors. There could be benefits to local economies when the State Aid rules are incorporated.

There are potential further of opportunities for local government here. How local government responds to the social cohesion issues that have been heightened by the referendum result being one such – an issue that I consider will be vital to the credibility of the sector.

The EU institutions were seen as remote by many voters; it is local and sub-national government in all its forms that needs to press for a central role in democratising power and responsibilities as the process of repatriation begins.

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