Manchester vs the Cayman Isles?

An unusual week in politics last week, writes Janet Sillett, where brexit wasn’t the only story in town – with the budget equalling it in headlines.

Writing the LGiU’s On Your Radar briefing recently reminded me quite how dominant brexit is in every area of political life and how it has stymied most other legislation. Local government is no exception, with important changes left in the air (like business rates retention) and further devolution uncertain.

On the surface it looks like parliamentary business is now back on track following the unexpected June election – with government consultations reappearing and select committee inquiries in progress. However, it all seems a bit marginal. The CLG select committee has initiated a number of important inquiries, (such as that into the private rented sector) but the most important is clearly the one examining the potential impact of brexit on local government– even more important as there has been scant attention from the government to the role of local government in the negotiations (it doesn’t seem to have one) and the huge impact of brexit on every aspect of local government.

Legislation is completely dominated by the EU Withdrawal Bill. The Bill is being debated in a Committee of the whole House. There are eight days of debate before Christmas at this stage in its progress through parliament, with nearly 500 amendments tabled by MPs so far. The Bill is of immense importance to local government, but you wouldn’t think so if you read the coverage of it so far.

The government has legally to consult local government according to Article 5 of the EU Lisbon Treaty which sets out the principle of subsidiarity within the Union. According to the LGA, during the withdrawal process this consultation would replicate the general duty to consult local government in the Council of Europe’s European Charter of Local Self-Government, a binding international commitment by the UK Government.

So this blog is inevitably reverting to brexit. The brexit debate is currently caught up in the drama over the negotiations moving on (or not) and the brexit bill (that is the money to be promised to the EU, not the legislation). It looks like there has been no discussion at all in the brexit talks about the impact on the public sector, let alone on local authorities, despite the principle of subsidiarity (highlighted recently by Rob Whiteman, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy).

Andy Burnham has come out fighting for the English regions – in a television interview for Sky News, he said: “There’s a committee with the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands but no permanent seat for the English regions”. The Cayman Islands, with a population smaller than Bury and an area smaller than the Isle of Wight, has “more of a say” over the brexit negotiations than Greater Manchester, which has a population of 2.8 million.

Brexit will have a huge impact on local government – and is already doing so in some areas – the position of EU nationals working in social care in the UK, for example, adds uncertainty to an already difficult social care situation.

Is brexit also preventing any real progress on devolution?

The LGiU, in our recent report Beyond Devolution, thinks it may have done, but also highlights that brexit makes a realignment of the relationship between central and local government actually more essential – given the huge challenges faced by our communities.

So can we expect radical change in the near future? Probably not – reform has been piecemeal and fragmented, conditioned and inconsistent. The political context isn’t favourable for that to change any time soon. Brexit is a huge barrier, but it could also be a unique opportunity for power to be devolved down to sub national and local government. At this stage in the negotiations, though, subsidiarity and its application to local government, both as a concept and as reality, are non-issues. Local government is going to have to fight its own corner for decentralisation, what ever happens with brexit.

Janet Sillett is the LGiU’s Head of Briefings.

LGiU members can catch up with all our Brexit briefings here

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