Brexit, devolution… and scrutiny?
Following the referendum result there’s a lot of chatter about the likely impact of the decision on local government and the devolution agenda.
If this seems parochial – my God, we should be talking about macroeconomics, the invocation of Article 50 of the TEU and the Labour leadership crisis! – it’s important to recognise that the Government’s current policies on devolution in England will have a profound impact on local people’s lives (a subject on which we have blogged and written before). Devolution presents a rare opportunity for a recalibration between local and central government. The (let’s put it delicately) similar recalibration between the UK and the EU will naturally have a profound knock-on impact.
There are two obvious barriers to the continuation (and acceleration) of the devolution agenda in England – I’ll also mention a third, which is more speculative.
The first is a lack of political commitment. The PM is resigning; in due course we will have a new front bench team. The Chancellor may not stay in his current post; neither might the current Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. We may even have a General Election sooner rather than later. New personnel at the top table always leads to a change in focus, and there is no guarantee that a commitment to the devolution agenda will continue with a new Cabinet. The arguments are there to be made (certainly given the fact that “moving power closer to the people” was a trope of the Leave campaign) but there is no guarantee that we will see the follow through. Simon Parker at the NLGN has blogged on this in more detail – behind the LGC paywall I’m afraid.
The second is a lack of capacity. If you are already fed up of hearing about Brexit I have some disappointing news. It will be the only game in town for the next two, three, five years, and possibly longer. The entire resources of the civil service, of Parliament and of the legal industry in particular will be deployed in unpicking what will happen to our laws once we leave (the FT’s legal columnist David Allen Green has explained this in some depth on his blog, although at the time of writing I can’t link to it as he’s exceeded his bandwidth allowance!). Government and Parliament simply may not have the time and resource to pursue and implement deals. The will may exist, but the time may not.
The third barrier, as I said, is more speculative. It is an economic shock. Remain repeatedly warned of the economic consequences of Brexit and it is quite possible that these will have an impact on the economic justification for devolution. Recession, a lack of inward investment and a general reduction in market and investor confidence could make the kind of deals which are being done at the moment either less attractive (in favour of a UK-wide, centralised response) or simply futile in the face of a macroeconomic onslaught. It’s a gloomy picture but a possibility.
What does this mean for scrutiny? Well, it’s probably a bit too early to say. At national level there is certainly scope for select committees – the CLG Select Committee in particular – to look into the likely future of the devolution agenda. The Committee has taken an interest in devolution in recent months – revisiting the situation in the light of Brexit is a natural approach to take.
Locally, it may be that councils’ scrutiny functions (and those of combined authorities) need to consciously exercise a check on what happens next. To pause, to think – are our devolution proposals still relevant and fit for purpose in the light of what has happened? To what extent are they reliant on inward investment from EU countries or direct funding from EU institutions?
Scrutineers can then consider if we need to make changes, what should they be and how should we secure buy-in? It may also be that scrutiny can carry out some of the unpalatable risk analysis. If the worst comes to pass and devolution withers, what will that mean for our aspirations as an area? Will it limit investment and growth, will it affect local people’s lives – and how? And how do we mitigate that?
Important and awkward questions that need to be ask. Hopefully scrutiny will be there to do the asking.