The UK Government has consistently maintained that there is ongoing dialogue with local government on Brexit. However, there are growing question marks over the extent to which this ‘dialogue’ is giving local government a platform to inform and assist central Government’s Brexit preparations.
Recent evidence clearly indicates that local government leaders are feeling sidelined from the process through which the UK is leaving the EU. 68% of UK council leaders/ mayors and chief executives responding to the January 2018 NLGN Leadership Index survey strongly disagreed or disagreed that their local authority has received adequate engagement from central Government in planning for Brexit. These findings are corroborated in evidence sent by councils to the HCLG Committee for its inquiry into Brexit and Local Government. A letter from Clive Betts, Chair of the HCLG Committee, to Sajid Javid highlighted that councils have reported “varying levels of engagement” with central Government on the Brexit process and some councils “felt their voice had not been heard at all.”
While councils are obliged to be content with the occasional roundtable and one-off meeting with Ministers, the devolved administrations have had regular discussions with Ministers on the Brexit process since Autumn 2016 through Joint Ministerial Committee meetings. No-one claims that these meetings have been entirely plain sailing, but an equivalent forum through which local authorities can engage in direct dialogue with Ministers on Brexit planning would be a significant step forward in decentralising the Brexit process by enabling councils to participate in formal and regular discussions on domestic preparations for Brexit. Such a forum would be particularly beneficial to councils in England, which do not have a devolved administration as an intermediary between themselves and central Government on Brexit issues.
The need for a formal committee to host regular Brexit discussions between Ministers and local authorities is becoming increasingly pressing for three reasons.
The first reason is that Sajid Javid, the representative at Cabinet for local government in England, only sits on one of the five influential Cabinet Committees determining the UK’s response to Brexit. Unlike the Secretaries of State for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, he does not even attend the Cabinet Sub-Committee discussing domestic policy preparation for Brexit. This situation raises doubts over the extent to which the intelligence provided by English local authorities to MHCLG on the potential impacts of Brexit on places throughout England is being made available to and discussed by Ministers in Cabinet decision-making settings.
The second reason concerns the continued lack of visible progress on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UK SPF), a key pillar of the UK’s domestic policy preparation for Brexit. The Conservative Party pledged in its 2017 manifesto to create the UK SPF to replace the money that local areas in the UK currently receive through European structural funds. However, with less than one year remaining until exit day, there has been no consultation or policy paper published by MHCLG indicating how the UK SPF might work and how funding will be allocated to reduce regional inequalities in the UK after Brexit. MHCLG’s public silence stands in stark contrast to other Government Departments such as DEFRA, which has already announced that farming support payments will be guaranteed at the current EU level until the 2022 election. While the UK’s farmers can plan for the next four years, councils are being left uncertain about the future of (for some local areas) critical streams of structural and investment funding beyond March 2019. Direct and sustained dialogue between Ministers and local authorities is needed to ensure that there is no structural funding ‘cliff edge’ if the UK SPF is not operational from 30 March 2019.
The third reason, as illustrated in our report with the University of Southampton, is that a place-based approach to post-Brexit policy-making is necessary to ensure that Brexit truly will work for all parts the UK. As the tier of government closest to ‘places’, local authorities need to be involved not just in the delivery of post-Brexit domestic policies, but also in their design and development stages. One-off roundtables with a selection of local areas will not uncover the evidence required to shape post-Brexit policies that are sufficiently flexible to meet the complex needs and ambitions of the diverse nations and regions of the UK.
The HCLG Committee has now added its voice to those calling on the Government to develop a committee for Ministers to engage formally and regularly with council leaders (not just combined authority mayors) on Brexit. In order that domestic preparations for Brexit are suitable for communities throughout the UK, it is imperative that central Government offers local government the same platforms for direct engagement with Ministers that the devolved administrations receive.