Brexit and local government

Posted on 09/08/2018 by Ed Hammond. Tags: ,

Are you bold enough to conduct a scrutiny review into your council’s preparations for Brexit?

I ask because the shape and complexion of our relationship with the EU beyond the end of March 2019 still looks unclear. There is, it seems, the real prospect of the Government not being able to negotiate a “transition deal” – an agreement about the extent to which our existing relationship will remain once we leave. If it is impossible to negotiate such a deal there is a real risk of the UK “crashing out” – the “no deal” scenario which has been prominent in the media in the last couple of weeks. If no deal is done the direct consequences of that failure are now only eight months away.

It is in everyone’s interest to “roll over” existing arrangements until the negotiations can conclude. But the stop-start nature of the talks until now – driven in part by political upheaval and uncertainty on this side of the Channel – does not inspire confidence.

Just last week an FOI request by Sky News revealed councils’ contingency planning. While the focus is on those areas where no-deal Brexit will have the most significant visible effect – the Kent authorities, and councils in areas which rely on seasonal employment in agriculture – all councils will see some impact. Some of these impacts include:

  • A fall in agricultural land prices;
  • Significant difficulties filling vacancies within the council (social care provision) and in the wider local economy (seasonal work);
  • Fall in income as a result of any economic downturn resulting from a no-deal Brexit;
  • Limits in the availability of basic and vital items – foodstuffs, medicines – possibly leading to social unrest;
  • Uncertainty over the replacement of EU structural and regional funds.

Of course, it remains the case that until more is known about the Government’s approach and the outcome of that approach, such reviews and evaluations of impact remain highly speculative. But local authorities have a duty to consider the possibilities nonetheless. It is probably right, then, that we think about how scrutiny ought to think about its own contribution to this contingency planning.

In 2013 we produced a policy briefing on the approaches that scrutiny might take towards emergency planning – in particular, engaging with councils’ duties under the Civil Contingencies Act. Although it is difficult to justify the use of the word “emergency”, under the meaning used in the Act, to describe some of the consequences of no-deal Brexit, some of the issues and approaches that we talk about in the briefing do have relevance.

In particular:

  • Effective evaluation of risk. Everything starts from the risk that the council predicts or expects from no-deal Brexit, and it was this that formed the basis of the FOI requests referred to above;
  • Effective partnership working. Scrutiny can understand how the council is working with business, residents, public sector partners and others to better grasp the implications and how they are being mitigated;
  • Translating national policy into local action. Where Government, and other national bodies, issue information and guidance about preparedness, scrutiny can help the council to review that information and to put in place local plans accordingly.

Depending on how negotiations develop, if a no-deal Brexit looks increasingly likely in the autumn and winter, we may do further, more detailed work on this subject.

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.