What will Brexit mean for local government, asks Janet Sillett. There is no answer to that – only that the only certainty is uncertainty.
Which of course is bad news for local government. Just a few questions to start with:
- Will there even be a brexit?
- If there is what kind will it be?
- When will article 50 of the Treaty take effect?
- If we leave, will the government still apply some EU legislation by bringing it into UK law?
And on the political repercussions within the government:
- Would a new Chancellor champion the Northern Powerhouse?
- Will devolution be on the agenda anyway?
- Will there be an early general election?
- What will Scotland do? And Northern Ireland?
What’s certain in this confusing world? EU laws still have effect. The EU President Donald Tusk said this after the result was announced – “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. According to the three Treaties which the United Kingdom has ratified, EU law continues to apply to the full to and in the United Kingdom until it is no longer a Member.”
What else do we know? The impact on the economy will be felt differently across the UK. The ‘emergency brexit budget’ isn’t going ahead (that is what Osborne said yesterday – maybe this isn’t quite a certainty though).
So not much official change for now – except the rest of the EU’s attitude to us and the fluctuations caused in the UK economy. The change to our relationship with the EU will have repercussions beyond the formal and the legal.
The referendum was advisory. It could be not taken forward by parliament but that is highly unlikely. The government seems to be saying though that it will not yet put into effect Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which triggers the withdrawal procedure – maybe not 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. And 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 see the 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 We don’t know how EU legislation will be dealt with – would it all be repealed under overarching legislation or dealt with in a different way?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 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.
Implications of the vote on sensitive political issues are already happening: the centre-right Mayor of Calais has announced that she wants the Treaty of Le Touquet to be re-negotiated (this bilateral treaty governs the ‘juxtaposed’ immigration controls for France and the UK).
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)?
Politically what happens to devolution now when a key champion in the government will no longer be Chancellor; when parliament will be tied up with the negotiations; when devolution in some areas is already confused and contentious, especially where it has become a debate more about reorganisation than localism? Will there actually be a stronger impetus for it in those cities where it will be seen as their defence against potential isolation and where their communities voted for remain – and where devolution is already ‘a done deal’?
How can local government as a sector respond? It is already demanding a place at the table. We were largely ignored during the campaign but the impact of the legislative changes will be huge on local authorities and 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.
We need to answer more difficult questions too that arose through the referendum campaign and the results across the UK. Perhaps the most important for England and Wales is whether devolution is in itself part of the answer to what looks like disaffection among many communities outside London (and cities like Bristol, Oxford and Norwich). Can devolution give places a greater sense of identity and purpose? Can it promote growth where Brexit could produce a shock to the local economy? There are no easy answers to these questions. It depends on what devolution means to different areas, whether councils can anyway deliver on growth if there is a prolonged period of economic uncertainty, whether the new finance system can work for poorer areas.
Apologies – 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 the country running everyday. Which is why it is even more crucial that local government’s voice is heard loud and clear over the future of the UK in this changed landscape.
We will be covering in much more detail the implications for local government over the coming weeks (and months and years…).
Janet Sillett is the LGiU’s briefings manager.