The letter has been sent. The deed is done. But today is really just the beginning.
Whether you are watching today’s events begrudging, jubilantly, with denial, or even boredom it is impossible to ignore the forceful eruption of a national conversation around the public’s dissatisfaction with our current systems of representation, decision-making, and accountability. The Brexit campaign, vote and nation-wide identity crisis has incontrovertibly been about a sense of general democratic disenfranchisement, anxieties around economic inequalities, and unbalanced access to politics.
Brexit is generally presented as an international issue, but we argue that local government must use, and be given, the opportunity to become change-makers in both the local and national arenas. As we enter the two-year period of Article 50 negotiations, the kind of society, culture and values we choose to reshape and create anew will depend on whose voices are heard.
Local government can play a key part in ensuring that community voices are heard. Councils can help work through questions of community tensions, political disempowerment and economic imbalances that have been highlighted since the vote on June 23rd last year. Local authorities hold a unique position as placemakers and as such they are well placed to bring communities together. As the level of governance closest to the people it is incumbent upon councils to engage residents and address issues of cohesion and local empowerment. They can get people around table, in community centres and town-hall meetings. This is, of course, made even more difficult by cuts to local authority budgets, but the last 9 months have shown that investment, both in terms of time and capacity, is crucial if we are to prevent more serious issues and demand in the future.
But while councils need to work on a local level, it is crucial that they are listened to on a national level also. First and foremost local government must be allowed to engage directly with Ministers from the Department for Exiting the European Union. If Brexit taught us anything, it is that people are increasingly feeling disconnected from where the power lies. As legislative, regulatory and political powers return from the EU, we must ensure this does not mean leaving them standing in the old corridors of Westminster.
The formation of Joint Ministerial Committees which will enable representatives of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar and the Overseas Territories to engage directly with a Minister from the DExEU. However, no such opportunity has been created for local government leaders in England. The Government must establish a forum for local government leaders across England to represent their areas’ interests in relation to Brexit. This will be an invaluable resource to inform the Government’s approach to the forthcoming negotiations with the EU and ensure that Brexit works for all parts of the UK, including all parts of England.
Brexit has divided the UK but now is the time to collaborate. We, of course, need to work with other EU nations, but local government also has an essential part to play, both nationally and locally.