The announcement that made headlines in an otherwise low-key speech from MHCLG Secretary of State James Brokenshire at this year’s LGA Conference concerned the establishment of a board to encourage closer collaboration between national and local governments on Brexit.
Local government has been starved of opportunities to engage formally and meaningfully with the UK Government on the Brexit process, which perhaps explains why this announcement has been generally welcomed by the sector. Any board must be better than no board, surely?
Details on the membership and terms of reference of the board are not yet available, but there is enough information in the public domain to raise serious doubts that the board will truly be the mechanism for meaningful engagement with the UK Government on Brexit that local authorities have been calling for. Note in particular that James Brokenshire introduced the board as a “delivery board […] that will support the implementation of changes linked to Brexit within the sector” (my emphasis). This statement does not suggest that the board will be used to give local government the chance to input into the design of any of the changes that the sector will be expected to deliver.
The other Government Minister to speak publicly about the board, DExEU Minister Suella Braverman, also indicated that the remit of the board will be focused exclusively on delivery. She told the LGC: “We are getting into the time when delivery now becomes important and we are seeing it at national level. […] That means it is the right time to now start working across the country at the local government level.”
Make no mistake: from what we know so far, this board is not the seat at the table that Greg Clark promised to local government at the LGA Conference in 2016. A seat at the table implies that local government has an equal platform with other sectors to share intelligence with the Government and contribute to discussions to shape national Brexit planning. The ‘delivery board’ proposed by James Brokenshire does not offer local government a seat at the table, but downgrades local government to a seat on the floor. It is a ‘top-down’ board that will make it easier for national government to delegate the delivery of its Brexit plans to local government without offering the sector a genuine opportunity to input into or co-design them.
For all the talk there has been from the Government in the Industrial Strategy about the need for more place-based policy-making, it is astonishing how reluctant the Government is to work in partnership with local government to understand the varying impacts of Brexit on places throughout the UK and design policy accordingly. Meetings with the LGA and combined authority mayors and one-off roundtables with a small number of councils are simply not enough to give the Government a clear sense of how different parts of the UK will be affected by Brexit, particularly as the exit negotiations with the EU are ongoing and the Government’s domestic planning for Brexit is still being developed. The consultation to inform the design of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund to replace EU structural funding has not even started yet.
The new board announced at the LGA Conference could and should have been an opportunity to involve local government more closely in the Government’s Brexit planning process as design and delivery partners, to realise the Prime Minister’s ambition that Brexit should work for all parts of the UK. Regrettably, the little we know about the board so far only illustrates the inferior role that the UK Government sees for local government in the Brexit process, namely: national government decides; local government delivers and deals with the consequences.