England & Wales, Scotland Brexit

Getting Brexit done: the end of the beginning

Image by Elionas2 from Pixabay

The Guardian has just published its last weekly Brexit update. I am not sure why – do they think ‘get Brexit done’ is actually done on 31 January 2020? I imagine it is more to do with what is newsworthy – months of negotiations in bare rooms in Brussels isn’t quite as newsy as MPs ‘taking control’ of the order paper or the speaker announcing which of the many amendments on a deal he will bestow his favour on for debate. But will it really be dull – yes, probably, the details of the future trade relationship and the UK’s relationship with different institutions won’t merit headlines, though there are bound to be ‘leaks’ from the talks and grandstanding on both sides.

But for many hard-pressed council staff Brexit is unlikely to be filed in the (virtual) concluded drawer just yet. There has been I would think the relief of at least now having a timetable and with the Conservative majority in the UK parliament the certainty that Brexit will actually happen: the Bill to withdraw will become an Act in the next two weeks, we will leave officially on 31 January, and then there are the milestones, with 30 June being a critical date – the deadline for extending the transition period. The EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill rules out any extension to the transition period and the Prime Minister has confirmed the UK government will not seek an extension. But as we have seen before nothing is set in stone with Brexit. So no one can be sure that we won’t end up at the end of December of this year with a trade deal not having been agreed and a new cliff edge on the horizon (to mix metaphors). But the reality is that the focus for some time had been on planning for no deal. This has now changed: the government has stood down Yellowhammer and the agenda is now about the relationship between the UK and the EU when the transition period ends.

Despite the new certainty of Brexit day there is still much uncertainty for local government to deal with. For councillors and local economy officers in some regions and places the replacement for the structural funds must be high on the list. We have no details about the Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF). We have had some ‘messages’ from members of the government but whether they are accurate is anyone’s guess. Will the government really funnel most or all of the money through LEPs and not local government? Will the cash be targeted on the ‘Red Wall’ towns in the English North and Midlands? Perhaps the imminent Devolution White Paper can begin to answer some outstanding questions.

The future trade agreement is key but there are other matters which will impact heavily on local government, such as the free flow of data, and crucially, whether future environmental and social standards in the UK keep pace with those in the EU. We have seen in the debates around the EU Withdrawal that the UK government is promising to maintain policy on some issues, such as workers’ rights and the treatment of child refugees, even though the new Bill has removed clauses to that affect. We will have to see what happens over the next few months but the removal of the clauses has been highly contentious. Watch this space.

The government is also not yet saying in any detail how they plan a new procurement framework – again a very important issue for local authorities. There is certainly space to reduce bureaucracy and increase flexibility but will the government go too far in removing the current rules?

1st February 2020 is not going to see any obvious sudden change on the ground, given the transition period, even though it is clearly a hugely significant date in the recent history of the UK. I think it does mean though that local government has to up its game in trying to influence the future relationship with the EU and the consequential changes to the legal framework in which we work. There are major constitutional implications of Brexit for the UK as a whole – especially for Scotland, where the general election and the certainty of Brexit actually happening has already intensified the fierce debate over independence. And the impact on Wales and Northern Ireland could also be profound.

For local government there could be real opportunities as well as serious challenges – as the sector has been saying since the result of the referendum, leaving the EU could and should strengthen decentralisation and localism. The MJ reports that The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government wants to continue to develop its relationship with the sector over the next year with community cohesion, economic resilience and the UK’s trade relationship with the EU expected to be among the items on the agenda. If that is really true then local government needs to press the subsidiarity case even harder. It took the government some time to establish a real relationship with the sector over Brexit – and there’s no time to lose in making sure they now keep to their word over its future one.

An LGiU Brexit Update briefing is available to all of our members.

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