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The challenges and opportunities of Brexit on English local government
Brexit is already proving epochal in its impacts on Britain. While trade, customs and regulations dominated the 2020 UK-EU negotiations, the changes to local government in England, while less publicised, will be equally important for a variety of reasons. They also may be tougher to identify.
In our recently published article in the Journal of Local Government Studies, we analyse three years' worth of highly original data gathered from across South East England over three years between 2015-18 to understand the complexities of Brexit’s impact on the English local government. This 3-year period was a time of great national confusion following the referendum, from the initial uncertainty of the UK's overall trade relations with the EU to the complexity of changed legislation, budgets, and powers between London and local authorities.
Three key themes
As we explore in the article, three clear issues dominated local decision-making in England following the 2016 UK Referendum on EU membership:
- Brexit’s impact the sources and application of post-Brexit legislation;
- access to future funds;
- devolutionary alterations to policy-making power.
We treat each of these three areas as discrete case studies, organising and analysing the range of views that we gathered from a wide range of political decision-makers according to three separate phases.
Our evidence base comprises a wealth of both group and individual interviews (with parallel questionnaires) conducted across a wide variety of individuals across Kent and the South East of England between 2015- 2018. District and Borough included input from Thanet District Council, Sevenoaks District Council, Maidstone Borough Council and Canterbury City Council, while regional interviewees were drawn from the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP) and various federated boards (e.g. the Kent and Medway Economic Partnership). Private sector voices were also included in the form of national and regional cross-sectoral representatives, trade body organisations.
What we discovered was a range of direct links between overarching, national Brexit narratives as to whether Brexit was a positive, negative, high/low-risk outcome and the specific approaches to tackling Brexit by local government decision-makers in the years between 2015-2018. The majority of district and borough councillors for example identified a range of ‘Brexit positives’ in the areas of legislation, funding, and governance, while some county-level officers and national representatives generally expressed greater caution, perceiving Brexit’s impact in challenging terms, identifying its impacts largely as risks. Regional representatives, including those of the private sector, were equally divided between Brexit’s pros and cons. Concerns were frequently material and short-term in nature, including particular anxieties over the disruptive impact of a no-deal Brexit on Kent’s infrastructure arising from protracted congestion at the Port of Dover and the Eurotunnel in Folkestone, as well as the disappearance of EU funding.
Three key phases
We explored the shifting perceptions of Brexit’s impact on local government in three separate phases between 2015-18. In the first phase (2015-2016), immediately following the EU Referendum, the data suggested that local authorities were deeply uncertain about the scope of Brexit’s changes to local government, with a modest grasp of EU policy structures and legislation. The second phase was launched by Prime Minister May's 'Lancaster House' speech which gradually clarified the scale of EU-UK legal, financial and regulatory decoupling. This in turn allowed decision-makers to better conceptualise Brexit-related changes as either 'basic' or 'significant' opportunities, or risks.
The final phase (2018) witnessed the even greater division of local views between the risks and opportunities of Brexit upon local government, with some Kent and South East-based views subsequently reiterated at the national level during the 2017-19 Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee's inquiry on Brexit.
Brexit and Localism
During and after the 2016 Referendum, the UK government concentrated on the theme of localism, the increasing references to ‘place-based governance, which was based on two key approaches: enhanced financial support to poorer regions. and enhanced local decision-making. As highlighted in a range of key government documents, the government’s goal was to essentially “drive growth” at a strategic approach to economic geography, through place-based and locally-controlled policies and funds, in an attempt to create “quality places”. However, this was, and remains, a high-stakes policy. Brexit will in the short term, lead to the initial centralising of power at the national level, making more difficult the challenge of adjusting national policies to meet the needs of increasingly diverse regions. However, Brexit’s medium-term impacts may lead to the wholesale devolution of key policies, allowing local politicians more control over the issues that affect the daily lives of the people they represent.
Part of the “take back control” Brexit discourse was aimed at boosting Britain's ability to establish and enforce more of its legislation beyond the purview of EU law. As we outline in the article, many of the interviewees struggled in the first two phases to grasp the complexity and range of EU legislation affected by Brexit. The central focus was upon the overall shifts on the Working Time Directive, procurement and waste disposal legislation (as examples) once translated into the body of UK legislation, and the governing scope of local councils in being able to map out decent responses and begin to plan.
Our article looks in depth at the difference between regulatory and distributive policies, providing a framework by which to analyse the response of local authorities. Some interviewees for example identified as a real positive the need to determine their procurement policy for goods and services, seeing opportunities to widen their options for local services and suppliers. Others however felt that the advent of a new, separate “UK-based regime” post-Brexit would introduce layers of complexity over standards, along with a host of transactional costs and delays, with little idea of the role of local regulatory oversight or enforcement.
Before 2021, local authorities in England received a host of variegated funding from the EU, from European Structural and Investment Funds (ESIF) co-financing non-infrastructure schemes to Regional Funds to direct funding for major consortium-driven higher education/industry research. Local government views were first characterised by initial confusion over the strategic nature of these various funding streams, with decision-makers struggling to grasp what had been received in funding terms from the EU and the manner of its disbursement. This gave way to more broad-based anxieties over whether core EU funding would be excluded from the Brexit negotiations, remaining largely untouched, or vanish altogether, along with concerns over the form of its domestic replacement. Opportunities to no longer contribute to the EU Budget post-Brexit were balanced by concerns over whether London would commit in the long-term to underwriting regional needs, from training and vocational support to broadband, roads and bridges.
Centralisation or Devolution?
Brexit also represents a clashing of key narratives about power and authority, from deepening an already highly centralised structure to shifts promoting enhanced devolution across England. Ideas of how, why, and when to recraft local government viewed Brexit as a unique catalyst to rethink the entire structure of local government. For some, there were deep misgivings over a possible, and permanent ‘Westminster power-grab undermining any serious attempts to rework established patterns of authority at the local level. For others, particularly during the second and third phases, greater clarity emerged regarding regulatory and constituent policies that could facilitate shifts benefitting local governments. As of 2021, devolutionary choices still present a somewhat simplistic array of potential winners and losers. From many, the benefits of devolved power at a local level will simply not compensate for the greater loss of their formal representation at domestic or European levels. For others, Brexit, combined with the 2019 General Election manifesto and outcome, significant shifts of attitude, attention and funding between London and the English regions is still on the cards.
We conclude by reviewing the local government’s strategic responses to the consequences of the 2019 General Election, the UK-EU Brexit negotiations of 2020, and the initial shape of post-Covid recovery to chart the UK’s post-Brexit strategies for local government. While the May 2021 local elections are likely to be fought on the material impacts of Covid, and perceptions of national and local management of the pandemic, the fault lines of repatriated legislation, differentiated funding and questions of who governs who, are likely to abide as the essential hallmarks of post-Covid local government in England.
Professor Amelia Hadfield is the Head of Politics at the University of Surrey and the Director of the Centre for Britain and Europe. She holds a Chair in European and International Relations with an extensive academic background within British and European foreign policy. Christian Turner is a Research Associate at the Centre for Britain and Europe and a former civil servant. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.