An open letter to our new elected mayors – on brexit

It will be tricky, but the incoming mayors need to make sure their voices are heard loud and clear as the brexit negotiations proceed, advises Janet Sillett.

Yes I know you’re not elected yet….

What’s going to be at the top of your agenda? I imagine there are so many pressing issues it is going to be really hard to prioritise. Not to mention assembling your team and all the organisational stuff. But what about policy and strategy?

I’d strongly suggest you think very carefully about the role you should adopt in meeting the myriad challenges of brexit now we have a bit of a clearer idea about how the negotiations will pan out and some sense of how the government will go about repatriating EU legislation into UK law. There is a lot at stake for each of your areas (not that you need to be told that).

Of course saying this is a lot easier than doing it. The negotiations are going to be done by the UK government, and the EU itself will be trying to dictate the terms. How can your voice be heard? You will want to know that the particular needs of your area are being taken in to account – whether it is about trading deals, finance, growth or free movement. I would be pressing, for example – along with my fellow newly elected mayors – for CLG to be closely involved over the next two years in the discussions over brexit. So far CLG has looked like a junior partner.

The implications of the so-called Great Repeal Bill are going to be profound for you (and all of local government). The future Bill will repeal the European Communities Act, which says EU law is supreme to the UK’s, and will transpose EU legislation into domestic UK law.

It will affect thousands of EU laws on everything from workers’ rights to the environment that are to be transferred into UK law.

How can you scrutinise what is going on? With difficulty probably. The great repeal bill white paper sets out for the first time the definitive account of the numbers of laws that may need to be converted into domestic law – around 8,000. It says there are currently 12,000 EU regulations in force. In the UK, there are “7,900 statutory instruments which have implemented EU legislation” with 186 acts of parliament “incorporating a degree of EU influence”. And a lot of that has direct relevance to local and sub-national government.

This is going to be an overwhelming piece of legislation. Which is presumably why the government has decided it will need to use a great deal of secondary legislation to get it through. David Davis explained the process “Once EU law has been converted into domestic law, parliament will be able to pass legislation to amend, repeal or improve any piece of EU law it chooses – “However, further steps will be needed to provide a smooth and orderly exit. Some laws, for example, grant functions to an EU institution with which the UK might no longer have a relationship. To overcome this, the great repeal bill will provide a power to correct the statute book where necessary to resolve the problems which will occur as a consequence of leaving the EU.”

He insisted the new powers (known as Henry VIII powers) would be temporary. However, they are sweeping powers and ministers will be able to amend acts of parliament without a vote. The white paper contains no legal threshold for the use of Henry VIII powers.

The Bill will, therefore, present significant challenges for local government – there is concern that the powers could be used to dilute certain environmental protections or workers’ rights (although the government has denied this emphatically). It will be hard for anyone, including MPs, to follow exactly what is being done.

But there are opportunities here too. If subsidiarity is to mean anything then the powers that return to the UK should be passed to the level of government most appropriate for them and closest to citizens. Local government needs to be clear what are its objectives for reform of the legislation and will need to be scrutinising what is happening in parliament. As a new and keen mayor of a combined authority you will want to press the case as strongly as possible for the devolution of powers (and appropriate funding) to your authorities.

So just a few things to be getting on with. As well as developing strategies for growth post brexit. And maintaining the links your areas have now with partners in EU local and regional government. And thinking through how brexit could affect the different sectors in your economy. And how to ensure that specific sectors remain sustainable if there is a loss of migrant labour and structural funds.

As new elected mayors of these greatly anticipated authorities you will need to be at the forefront of lobbying for local government to be given the attention and the powers and finance it needs in order to make brexit work in our localities. As Tony Travers has said recently – it’s time to take back control.

Good luck. I know you will be up to it.

LGiU members can read our brexit update March-April .

Janet Sillett is LGiU’s head of briefings.

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