I’ve just returned from the 2017 UACES conference in Krakow, where I presented a paper on the (rather limited) role of local government in the EU referendum campaign. One of the key starting points of the paper was that little concern is given to the local dimension when discussing Brexit. This is no only reflected in the referendum campaign, but also in the ongoing debate surrounding what Brexit will look like.
There are three main takeaways, all of which come back to the influence and power of local government.
The first of these are formal consultation rights. Being part of the EU gives English local authorities a voice in the Committee of the Regions. This institution has a formal role in the EU policy process and in a number of policy areas (broadly relating to the function of local government) the European Commission must seek the CoR’s opinion on legislative proposals. There is no equivalent institution or body with such formal consultative rights in the UK. The LGA’s fear, then, is that Brexit means losing this formal consultative role in the development of legislation. As things stand, the EU withdrawal bill fails to provide a remedy for this situation, meaning once the UK has ‘taken back control’, local government will essentially lose its voice in policy areas previously dealt with by the EU.
The second issue concerns subsidiarity. This is enshrined in Article 5(3) of the Lisbon Treaty which states that where something is the EU cannot act if what it wants to do is better achieved at the national, regional or local levels. Local authorities have, through the CoR, recourse through the Court of Justice if the EU oversteps its mark. Again, here the LGA’s concern is that the bill in its current form fails to adequately replicate these protections once the UK leaves the EU, and decisions hitherto made by the EU will be made in Whitehall and Westminster without due regard to subsidiarity.
The third issue relates more broadly to the role and power of local government post Brexit. As the briefing points out:
Brexit should not simply mean a transfer of powers from Brussels to Westminster, Holyrood, Stormont and Cardiff Bay.
The fear is that power repatriated from Brussels will simply be recentralised in Whitehall and Westminster and get stuck there. Where it is further decentralised, that will only apply to the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. England, of course, has no devolved administration. But, more crucially, it is local authorities who are more often directly affected by the EU, be it through EU funding which councils are reliant upon, EU legislation which they must implement, EU rules on procurement and state aid which they must abide by, and even the role of EU workers who are crucial in delivering key local services such as social care. Brexit, the LGA argues, presents an opportunity to give local government more control over its own fate, but that will only happen if powers currently held in Brussels go beyond Whitehall.
The LGA’s concern with the EU withdrawal bill therefore reflects broader criticisms of the bill: that it will see too much power given to central government. Brexit and the bill currently before parliament, the LGA worries, will see some of the influence local government currently has by virtue of EU membership lost. And, in an already highly centralised political system, that will only make things worse.