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CCN: Still no place at the table for councils a year on from Brexit

County Councils have this week slammed Whitehall’s inability to engage with local government on how Brexit will affect their communities and businesses.

Speaking at the Public Sector Show in London, director of the County Councils Network (CCN) Simon Edwards sharply criticised the government’s handling of Brexit, saying that more work was needed to open a dialogue with councils about getting the best deal for local regions when the UK leaves the EU.

“A year ago, ministers promised local government a seat at the table, and the LGA was bringing politicians and officers together from across the country to engage together on Brexit,” Edwards said.

“But it’s fair to say that after a year its very obvious that there’s no seat, there’s no table, and there’s probably not even a single room or group of people for local government and the public sector to engage in over Brexit.”

In particular, Edwards said that councils in England had particularly been left out of Brexit proceedings, as he stated that English councils had no voice to talk to central government about its concerns and priorities for the country’s Brexit deal.

“The government are happy to talk to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but not England,” the CCN director argued. “Who represents the voice of the communities, businesses and residents in England? That’s a particular issue that’s not been addressed as part of the Brexit discussions.”

But in his speech, he also highlighted that councils should not be despondent about this issue, but instead to push Whitehall towards change.  

“I’ve had discussions with ministers and senior civil servant s and they have said that if we make noises and get our act together they may have to take notice of our views,” Edwards said. “We have an uphill battle to make sure those issues that need to be raised, are raised.”

Devolution ‘absolutely key’ to navigating Brexit smoothly

Decentralisation and devolution was also seen as a key component to easing government pressure as the Civil Service had its hands full with negotiating the UK’s exit from Europe.

And despite council experts predicting a “rocky road” for the devolution agenda over the next two years of discussions with the EU, Edwards said that handing down more powers to councils and CAs was vital to ensure that the negative impact of Brexit to local communities could be dealt with on the ground by the people closest to the problems.

“Local government and public sector has a really important role to play in identifying the place-based effect of Brexit that the government will just not see,” he said.

“Devolution and decentralisation is absolutely key,” Edwards continued. “The evaporation of powers from the EU cannot just sit in Whitehall, we are the most centralised democracy in the Western world and we cannot afford for that to continue.”

This was also a sentiment echoed by economic expert Bev Hurley, chair of the Institute of Economic Development.

She stated: “The key opportunity presented by Brexit is around localism and devolution agendas, particularly with combined authorities, the new mayors and LEPs.

“They need to be backed up by more devolved funding to whichever structures and institutions are responsible for economic development.”

“But this does not mean that there are not difficulties ahead with pushing this reform forwards,” Hurley warned. “The challenge of the localism agenda is around skills deficits and leadership deficits at a local level and so there is a great deal more to do to improve the capacity and capability of leadership and particularly around how we collaborate and overcome political differences.”

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