It may have been all but sidelined by central government during the past few years, but, says Janet Sillett, local government will be the one still delivering services and striving to do the best for communities after 29th March.
“In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again”.
Alice in Wonderland
We are still in that Brexit rabbit hole and up to this point no-one can be sure how to get out of it. But there are some certainties – whatever happens it will be local government that will have to carry on doing its job to ‘pick up the pieces’ as Tony Travers recently put it.
Doing its job regardless of Brexit has in itself got more difficult with the more or less paralysis of central government. Where’s the adult social care green paper? Will the Universal Credit problems be finally sorted or just touched on around the margins at some stage? What’s happened to devolution? Thousands of civil servants have been swallowed up dealing with Brexit and more are being diverted now into working on the possibility of a no deal outcome.
The growing prospect of a no deal exit has finally pushed the government into communicating with local authorities after years of local government being the unheard sector. Why? Because councils will need (with others in local resilience forums) to try to minimise disruption – to transport hubs, medical supplies, access to food, the removal of waste. The government has warned councils to expect a three- month period of disruption – no-one knows if that is an accurate figure of course or what the effects in the longer term could be. Some council chief executives have said they are worried about possible civil unrest (in relation to a no deal, but Theresa May has said there could be unrest if Brexit was abandoned too).
Local government has had to respond to Brexit with totally inadequate financial support and guidance. James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State, has rather late in the day asked for more money for local government to deal with the post Brexit situation.
As usual in relation to Brexit the most glaring issue is that of uncertainty. We could end up now with the government getting its deal through and the UK leaving the EU on 29 March or an extension to article 50 but for how long? Or a no deal exit. Or a new referendum. This uncertainty feels almost existential – coming on top of the uncertainties around the workforce, the position of EU nationals here and UK citizens living in the rest of the EU, and EU funding – to name just three. How can councils prepare for any of this – especially a no deal when no deal is the one outcome most MPs are firmly against? Yet there is no choice – and it is especially hard on top of increasing financial pressures in some councils. Carrying on doing the day job must look almost impossible to a few chief executives in the middle of a sleepless night.
What lessons can we learn? The list must be very long indeed.
But the lesson for central government is surely that downplaying the role of local government in the biggest political issue of a generation and not hearing its voice is foolish to put it mildly.
I have no doubt local government will be up to the task – but how much better for everyone if it all wasn’t at the last moment – whatever happens in the next few weeks in parliament. The recent scenes in the House of Commons have underlined what many in local government have been saying for decades: local government quietly gets on with it, working with communities and partners to improve life in our local areas whilst the centre can sometimes appear to be stuck in the rabbit hole.
Janet Sillett is the LGiU’s Head of Briefings.