A seat at the table?

Where is the voice of local government in the Brexit debate? Asks Janet Sillett. You’d have to look pretty hard to find it.

This isn’t my first blog to point this out, but it is surely more crucial now that that voice isn’t ignored, given the publication of the Repeal Bill (the EU (withdrawal) Bill).

Andy Burnham, the new mayor of Greater Manchester, speaking at the recent LGA conference, said that the English regions “haven’t been given any meaningful role” in the Brexit negotiations. English county councils have criticised Whitehall’s inability to engage with local government on how Brexit will affect their communities and businesses. Speaking at the Public Sector Show in London, the director of the County Councils Network (CCN) Simon Edwards sharply criticised the government’s handling of Brexit, saying that more work was needed to open a dialogue with councils about getting the best deal for local regions when the UK leaves the EU:

“A year ago, ministers promised local government a seat at the table, and the LGA was bringing politicians and officers together from across the country to engage together on Brexit, but it’s fair to say that after a year its very obvious that there’s no seat, there’s no table, and there’s probably not even a single room or group of people for local government and the public sector to engage in over Brexit.”

It isn’t as if local government hasn’t been actively engaged with the EU for many years – setting up offices, accessing funding, encouraging investment, and working with sub national government across the EU on best practice. So the sector has much to add to the discussions over Brexit. Individual and groups of councils will have their specific concerns about Brexit, but there are many issues that are shared among the majority of authorities. The uncertainty about EU citizens rights, for example, and especially the future of the EU nationals working in health and social care, the vast majority of whom are not British citizens.

What can the sector do to stamp its authority on the Brexit debate? Shout a bit louder perhaps? Simon Edwards, as well as criticising the government, also highlighted that councils should not be despondent about this issue, but should instead push Whitehall towards change: “I’ve had discussions with ministers and senior civil servants and they have said that if we make noises and get our act together they may have to take notice of our views.”

The Repeal Bill is going to be probably the most significant legislation for local government for decades. There must be concern about the ability of parliament to properly scrutinise the bill, given some laws could be converted through secondary legislation which could be amended later without parliamentary consent. It will be even more difficult for local government, but it is important that MPs understand the concerns of the sector and of individual councils or regional groups. Groups of councils and metro mayors could bring together their MPs to impress on them how critical it is that their authorities, individually and collectively, are not left on the sidelines.

Maybe we need more inventive ways of getting that (in this case, perhaps metaphorical) seat at the table? Perhaps local government could produce a video or use social media to get some key messages across. Or examine in depth the potential effects of key areas of the negotiations on their communities, services and workforce – in partnership with those communities, workers, charities and businesses. What about commissioning local artists or writers to highlight how Brexit isn’t just a sterile debate between two opposing sides in Brussels?

Of course I am implying nothing is happening and that isn’t the case. Some individual councils and regional groups are being active in preparing for the next two years and beyond after Brexit – analysing the impact of Brexit on their communities, finances, workforce, local economy and services. In Edinburgh, for example, a member officer working group was established to examine the impact of the EU result on residents and vulnerable households and communities who use council services, as well as on their planned projects and service delivery, budgets, and key partners.

Brexit poses significant and difficult challenges for all councils. But there will be opportunities too – and the most important is that when EU laws are brought into UK law devolution from Europe doesn’t stop at Westminster or Holyrood, or indeed Cardiff or Belfast.

There’s work to do to ensure local government gets their fair share of any devolved powers and there isn’t a power grab by the centre. Seemingly a lot of work, given where we are now. We need to shout that bit louder.

LGiU members can read our latest Brexit Update here.

Janet Sillett is LGiU’s Head of Briefings.