Countdown to Brexit: 9 days – Government “failing to fully support local authorities to prepare for Brexit”

Brexit Minister, Stephen Barclay MP, answering questions before the Committee for Exiting the EU, confirmed a number of assumptions arising from the extended Cabinet meeting.  He was clear that each Government Department and its Minister are individually responsible for Brexit preparations.

DExEU is accountable for “coordinating” Brexit activities and contingency planning, including for a no-deal scenario.

He confirmed that the Cabinet Office emergency team – “COBRA” – was and had been continually in place since 24 March working on the UK’s no-deal Brexit contingency plan – codename “Yellowhammer”.  He was at pains to emphasise that Yellowhammer does not fall under his remit or control.

His comments came as the ‘Housing, Communities and Local Government’ Committee 20-page report was published - calling on the Government to take “urgent action to enable local authorities to prepare for the consequences of Brexit”.

Committee Chair, Clive Betts MP said: “Whatever form of Brexit is finally decided upon, local authorities will play a key role in ensuring as little disruption as possible to people’s day-to-day lives.  They have the local knowledge and experience to identify likely problems and create workable solutions - yet the Government is not giving them sufficient support to do this - nor is it adequately seeking their input to identify problems and inform their planning.

The Committee identifies five “urgent priorities” to improve information sharing and Brexit preparations at a local level.  The report then goes on to set out a further five key policy actions that the Government needs to take in the “long-term”.  We have published the full list in the background section, below.

Betts summed up the report: “Over the course of this inquiry we have heard from local councils about the specific challenges they are likely to face…uncertainty over what the UK’s future trade relationship…potential for gridlock on roads…concerns about whether key services with a high proportion of EU workers will face critical pressures in filling vacant posts.

“The Government must recognise these issues, provide reassurance and support, to enable vital services to be maintained to the level expected.

It is clear that the all-party Committee has found that the Government has not provided adequate “financial support and technical guidance to respond to emerging challenges”.  They conclude that “It is also absolutely imperative that the Government now brings forward its plans for replacing the EU funding that some of the poorest communities across the country currently rely on.”

As Tory Whip and Junior Minister for Wales, Nigel Adams, this morning became the 36th Minister to resign since the 2017 General Election over Brexit – leaving 15 Ministerial vacancies – the risk and exposure to lack of accountable Government leadership through the coming months, whether a Brexit ‘deal’ or ‘no-deal’, will be an increasing issue.   The Local Government Committee report is a stark illustration.

Background - Key Actions identified in Housing, Communities and Local Government report

Five priorities for urgent action

1. The Government must maintain its existing mechanisms for mutual engagement and information-sharing with local government during and immediately after the UK’s withdrawal from the EU – throughout a transition period and negotiations on a future relationship under a ‘deal’ – and even more importantly in a ‘no-deal’ scenario.

2. The Government must ensure a comprehensive range of planning, guidance and support is put in place for local authorities in the event of ‘no-deal’ Brexit - and that all local authorities are fully aware of the steps they would have to take in a no-deal situation.

3. The Government must take steps to address workforce shortages in the short-term - ensuring that EU nationals working in the UK are made aware of and encouraged to apply for settled status.  Key sectors highlighted as at risk of workforce shortages include construction and social care.  Home Office sector-specific workforce immigration scheme such as that being piloted for agricultural workers – may be needed.

4. The Government must use the information-sharing networks it has put in place - such as the EU Exit Local Government Delivery Board; and the network of nine local authority Chief Executives - to determine new burdens on local authorities resulting from the immediate aftermath of Brexit.  This includes central government funding provision in a no-deal scenario.

5. The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government must immediately step up its liaison with all local authorities with a ‘major’ port.  MHCLG should represent them to the Department for Transport, and other relevant departments, about concerns about the immediate consequences of Brexit.  Individual port-councils should not be expected to use their reserves to adequately prepare for the immediate impact of Brexit.

Five key post-Brexit policy actions:

1. The Government must urgently advance its plans for the establishment of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund - and publish the promised consultation on its design and administration within two weeks from 12 April.  Funding levels for the new Fund, to be announced at the time of the Autumn 2019 Spending Review, must match or exceed the equivalent levels of EU funding which is currently provided to local government.  This cannot be a one size fits all approach and must be allocated on the basis of local need, including taking account of what individual areas currently receive from EU structural funds as well as what they would have been entitled to in the next EU funding period if the UK had remained a member.  The funding made available in the UK Shared Prosperity Fund must also be additional to the new funding already provided for by the ‘Stronger Towns Fund’.

2. The Government should consider the effect of the loss of European Investment Bank loans at the regional and local level - and consult local representatives in ongoing discussions to determining how infrastructure projects may be appropriately funded in future, providing clarity on such arrangements as soon as possible.

3. The Government should urgently make clear its plans for the further devolution of powers to local authorities post-Brexit - and publish its proposed new Devolution Framework within one month of the UK's withdrawal from the EU.  The Government should include in that framework its plans for devolution in the various areas’ stakeholders have identified to us as priorities post-Brexit; most notably skills but also the potential for fiscal devolution, housing, transport and other infrastructure, digital connectivity, health and wellbeing, trade and investment and productivity.  The Government should also assess the potential merits of bringing forward an English Devolution Bill, as proposed by the LGA, in the Queen's Speech after the UK has left the EU.

4. The Government must make clear its plans for the role of local government in the creation of post-Brexit domestic policy.  The Committee believes that there must be a formal process by which local government can be consulted on policies or legislation that will directly affect it.

5. The Government must consult with local authorities as it transfers legislation from the EU back to the UK - taking into particular consideration the areas highlighted to the Committee as opportunities for improvement including: public procurement, food hygiene, environmental health, trading standards and waste management.  The Government must make use of the EU Exit Local Government Delivery Board to ensure close cooperation with local government on repatriated legislation.  As part of consultations on the Spending Review 2019 it should also assess the financial impact of this transfer of legislation on local authorities.