A seat at the table but where’s the table?

Why is local government being virtually excluded from the brexit negotiations, wonders Janet Sillett, when it is the perfect opportunity to press ahead with a  meaningful decentralisation of power.

“Local government was promised a seat at the table. It is not clear even where the table is, never mind what the seat is. If you look at the five committees that have been set up, even at a ministerial level the DCLG Secretary of State is represented at only one of them, and it is the committee that is looking at the day-to-day issues that arise. It is not one of the negotiating table committees”. (Jessie Hamshar, Service Director, Cornwall County Council (giving evidence to the Housing, Communities and Local Government select committee’s inquiry into brexit and local government)

I think that pretty well sums up the position regarding local and sub-national government and their visibility in the brexit negotiations and debate.

Councils face massive uncertainty about the impact of brexit on their communities. Some of that uncertainty is inevitable – until we know what the final deal is. But that isn’t an excuse for excluding the sector from any meaningful engagement.

Let’s consider two fundamental issues – structural funding and devolution of EU powers and laws.

While the Conservatives’ 2017 election manifesto included a pledge to create a UK “shared prosperity fund” to replace EU regional aid, little detailed information has been given about how this funding would be allocated.

What kind of arrangements will be made for regional funds once we leave the EU? Why shouldn’t the decisions about any future regional funding be devolved? But even if the answer is they should be devolved the question is how. What role would there be for the new combined authorities and mayors and for those areas which haven’t got these new arrangements? How would a new system fit with reforms to local government finance? And how will any brexit deal play out in the different regions, towns and cities of the UK? Again we can’t know the answer to that without knowing what that deal is (and even then it will be speculative to some extent) but the analysis of the potential different impacts across the UK is crucial.

What might seem more esoteric questions are those focused on devolution and powers, such as how many laws returned to the UK will be devolved to local government. These issues, however, are critical ones for local authorities and sub-national bodies. And again the question is who decides and what is the process for decisions to be made?

The way the process is managed is also crucial. Helen Dickinson, Assistant Chief Executive, Newcastle City Council, stressed three points in her evidence to the select committee:

The general question of transferring EU legislation into UK law raises three issues for us in local government: the impact that the risk of ambiguity in the transitional phase could have on us; the flexibility in how the legislation is transferred; and the capacity and resources to prepare.”

Will brexit be a platform for strengthening decentralisation?

The Centre for Cities in their written evidence suggested that there is:

“a unique and powerful opportunity for the UK government to reinvigorate our democracy, particularly through increased devolution.

“Devolution is an important factor in improving the performance of cities. For example, cities with greater local freedom also tend to be more competitive. European cities often tend to have greater freedoms and powers, so this leaves the UK’s cities in a vulnerable position as we approach brexit.”

But this is an issue for all of local and sub-national government and not just cities. What role will the sector have when EU law is transferred to the UK – central or marginal? Will the repatriation of EU laws and powers bypass local government?

So far local government has featured very little in the parliamentary debates on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. And the endless discussion about brexit in the media hardly ever mentions local and sub-national government. Yet so many areas of EU competences are fundamental to sub-national government – such as skills, rural policy, the environment, waste management, and procurement.

If brexit is to mean ‘taking back control’ in important aspects of life for UK citizens then surely it has to be more control at the local and regional level? Or it will lead to more centralisation and diktat from above.

Janet Sillett is LGiU’s Head of Briefings.