Next week I embark on my new research project examining the impact of Brexit on UK local government. This is obviously quite broad but I’m essentially interested in three things:
- Why was the local dimension largely overlooked in the EU referendum campaign?
- What challenges and opportunities do local authorities believe Brexit presents them with?
- How are local authorities preparing for Brexit (if at all), and how are they trying to influence the process of Brexit and its potential outcomes?
For the moment, the focus is engaging in a pilot study to help refine these broad objectives. But at this stage it helps to explain why this research agenda is worth pursuing.
A lot of academic interest on the subnational dimensions to Brexit has focused on its impact on the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales (see this special interest section in the Journal of Contemporary European Research for a flavour). This is for good reason, given the various constitutional and political implications present here, such as debates about Scottish independence, or the role of the border in Northern Ireland. However, for a variety of reasons, the impact of Brexit on the local level has been unfairly overlooked.
The EU has a significant impact on local authorities. The Local Government Association estimates they are directly responsible for the implementation of around 70% of EU legislation and policy. EU rules, such as on procurement and state aid, affect the way they deliver services and operate on a daily basis. Local authorities are the main beneficiary of the EU’s Structural and Investment Funds, from which the UK stood to benefit from £5.3billion between 2014 and 2020. Local authorities are formally recognized in the EU’s institutional structure in the Committee of the Regions. The EU also provides opportunities to engage beyond local territorial limits. Local authorities have taken advantage of these, setting up offices in Brussels to lobby EU institutions (such as Birmingham’s or Cornwall’s), and engaging in transnational networks with other local authorities (such as Eurocities or the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions), providing platforms to access EU funding, influence EU policy and share policy innovation and best practices with European partners.
All of this arguably gives local government the status as the most ‘Europeanized’ part of the British state. And yet we heard relatively little about the local dimension to Brexit during the EU referendum campaign. Over a year since the referendum result, we’re still largely in the dark on what Brexit means for local government. The government’s white paper on the UK’s withdrawal and new partnership with the EU managed only 28 words on the subject, and this is vague at best:
We will also continue to champion devolution to local government and are committed to devolving greater powers to local government where there is economic rationale to do so.
On the ground, local authorities are already trying to get to grips with Brexit and its implications. This includes collectively through organizations such as the Local Government Association, but also several local authorities have taken the initiative to explore the impact of Brexit, its challenges and its opportunities with their local communities. Examples include the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Futures Group, or Bristol’s Brexit Response Group. But a wider lack of attention given to the local level impact of Brexit leaves important questions about the future of local governance in the UK left unanswered. How will local authorities continue to deliver projects which have so far relied on EU funding? Will EU funding to the local level be replaced after the UK leaves the EU. Will local authorities be able to make their voice heard and influence the process or outcome of Brexit? Will powers repatriated from Brussels be devolved to local government, or simply be re-centralized in Whitehall? And how will this affect the communities local authorities serve?
The EU’s impact on local authorities means Brexit matters to them, and Brexit’s wider impact on the UK will inevitably have local level consequences. Investigating the local level impact of Brexit therefore not only tells us how local authorities are adapting, but also sheds light on the ever fraught relationship between local and national politics.