The devolution genie is out of the bottle. As we debate our future sovereignty there needs to be a strong role for local governance.
So now we know. Or do we? The UK faces months of uncertainty as the consequences of the Brexit vote, followed by David Cameron’s own exit, play out.
As all eyes turn to messy wrangling at Westminster, where does this leave local government? At this moment, the sector needs its voice heard, and clearly.
As a priority, local government needs a seat at the table as the financial and legal implications of Brexit are considered. The sector needs clarity over the replacement of nearly £6bn of European Structural Investment Funds invested in regional infrastructure, skills and youth unemployment schemes across the country. These funds play an important but largely hidden role in community infrastructure, with little public understanding of them. A Leave-led government will need to commit to continuing these or face huge local disruption. Beyond that, the practical implications for local government in legal and regulatory terms over huge swathes of activity – procurement, waste collection and disposal, energy efficiency – will need to be understood by those navigating the consequences of working outside EU directives.
Secondly, the future of devolution is by no means certain. George Osborne’s political future remains as bound to Cameron’s as it has ever been and so is now in serious doubt. Since devolution to date has been driven by a chancellor who invested his personal political capital in the agenda, local government now needs to make the policy resistant to personnel change at the Treasury. Whatever happens at Westminster and Whitehall, the impending invocation of Article 50 and ensuing trade negotiations will consume the energy of SW1 – so new and deeper devo deals will be much harder for the foreseeable future.
Thirdly, the repatriation of powers from Brussels to the UK will strengthen the supremacy of Parliament. It is likely that Scotland and Northern Ireland’s Remain majorities raise questions about their future within the UK. Local government in England needs to make sure any constitutional discussion does not stop at the national level and addresses how we are governed more fully. The Referendum vote lay bare the geographical divides within England and the alienation of swathes of the country from the Westminster establishment.
It is clear that representative democracy as we know it is in crisis – to ensure legitimate government in the future we need a serious discussion about where power lies and how our communities can have more influence in their own future. For those of us who are localists this is a given – but the terms of the national debate are not yet set in this way and they need to be. Local government needs to be heard.
Over the coming months there will be more opportunity for this. Continued dysfunction at Westminster, with both main parties divided from the Referendum fallout, gives an opportunity for local leadership to stand out on the national stage as never before. By the end of this year, candidates for new directly elected mayors will be in place and many of our city and county regions will have the opportunity to decide the future of their places. Will this help to shift the centre of political and constitutional gravity away from Westminster? Can we breathe new life into our struggling national democratic culture? Time will tell, but it is likely that the politics and kinetic energy generated by the referendum will continue and may influence these elections in ways we cannot yet foresee.
As we continue a national discussion over what sovereignty looks like, we need to make sure there is a strong local dimension which gives life to the rich diversity of our nation of cities and shires. The devolution genie is already out of the bottle and even as the Westminster bubble bursts, stronger local governance has the opportunity to take on a new life of its own. The future legitimacy of our democracy may well depend on it.