The LocalGov survey is a timely call for the Government to listen to the views of local councils during Brexit negotiations.
It would be perverse to interpret the Brexit vote as a demand for greater centralisation. Instead, as Greg Clark argued in a speech to the Local Government APPG, just before moving to BIS, it means it’s time to “double down” on devolution.
There are many reasons why the country voted to leave the EU but one factor was certainly a sense of anger about decisions being made far away by people not directly accountable. Devolution is a key part of resolving that just as it is a key part of growing local economies and improving public services. But Brexit also poses some challenging questions for local government.
There are clear concerns about the withdrawal of EU funding and its affect on the four-year funding settlement, which need to be swiftly addressed.
There is also a more fundamental question about sovereignty. During the campaign, the LGiU criticised both leave and remain camps for their narrow focus on parliamentary sovereignty. This seems to be a reverse of the devolution agenda and ignores the huge progress made in restoring local control of public services. We know that on a whole range of issues, from economic growth to social care, political power is most effectively exercised at a local rather than a national level. This must be part of the eventual Brexit settlement.
Councils are very direct in their call for powers to be transferred to town halls rather than a simple Brussels to Whitehall transaction. With a new Conservative administration, clarity about how Brexit and devolution fit together is fundamental.
The referendum divided local government just as it did the rest of the country, but whatever side of the debate people were on, it’s important now to focus on making Brexit work in the national interest.
This survey gives us a clear sense of the challenges councils face but we need now also to look at the potential opportunities: freedom around procurement rules, different conversations around state aid and structural funding, potential to be represented directly within trade deals, and capitalising on lower interest rates to develop local town centres.
Above all there is an opportunity to continue a conversation about democracy and engagement initiated, however imperfectly, by the referendum.
To overcome these challenges and make the most of the opportunities will need bold thinking.
LGiU’s new Future Local series analyses these issues in greater depth and explores how we as local government can thrive in a post Brexit future.
Jonathan Carr-West is chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU)