Local leadership gives us best chance of overcoming Brexit chaos

Copied from Local Goverment Chronicle online
24 JUNE, 2016
Nick Golding

COMMENT
Local government is not alone in being today caught in a vortex of confusion. A political earthquake has taken place and the foundations on which the British state rests have been partially destroyed. There are huge repercussions for our political culture, economic wellbeing and public services.

We have entered a period of political turmoil which will not end when the Conservative party elects a new leader this autumn. The legislative agenda over the coming years will be dominated by bills charting the path to Brexit; our national leaders’ overwhelming priority will be to chart a smooth departure from Europe.

Of course we have little idea who our national leaders will be. David Cameron has resigned and damaged George Osborne’s grip on the Treasury, and the national devolution agenda is severely under threat. Our sector will now be pouring over the past statements of Boris Johnson, Theresa May, Michael Gove et al in an attempt to uncover any localising tendencies. Despite the former’s eight years as London’s mayor, one’s instant perception is that the next Conservative leader is unlikely to be a local government enthusiast. On the Labour side there is equal turmoil. Jeremy Corbyn has shown himself to be an ineffective campaigner. There is no alternative government in waiting.

Recent years have seen the collapse in the funding of local government with devastating consequences for public services but – more positively – a surge of optimism relating to the devolution of power. While Devo-Manc clearly has some momentum, much of this was based on the alliance between Mr Osborne and the city’s overwhelmingly Labour leaders. While it would take much to derail the election of a series of metro mayors across northern England next year, their future empowerment depends on a culture of cooperation and goodwill from the highest levels of government. This is by no means assured.

LGC Live: the Brexit fallout
Ministers were already having huge difficulty agreeing devolution deals for non-metropolitan areas. It is hard to believe Tory councillors or MPs wary at the imposition of elected mayors will feel anything other than emboldened by this latest round of uncertainty. And much of southern England’s local government was already in turmoil after the government opened the restructuring floodgates. Oxfordshire districts’ unitary dreams were emboldened by the prime minister’s support, which has suddenly become irrelevant. The Treasury surely has bigger fish to fry than local government reorganisation, which may be regarded as an unnecessary risk. It is entirely conceivable that relationships between the two tiers of local government have been wrecked for no gain.
Austerity will surely remain. The likely shift to the right of the Conservative leadership surely hardly heralds extra resources. Huge questions need to be answered about how, in particular, poorer areas will fund services as grant is cut and business rates are localised. Political turmoil surely makes the answering of these questions a far slower process. And, on the subject of money, what happens to European development funding? There will be little faith in Cornwall that any new government will have the same commitment to improving its infrastructure even if Britain, on balance, is a net contributor to the European Union.

We have not even discussed how gaps in the social care and NHS workforce can be plugged. After arguments about immigration won the Brexit referendum, it feels less likely that care providers will be able to welcome the East Europeans prepared to put up with relatively poor pay to support our ageing population. Similarly, local growth plans in many areas depend on the arrival of migrants.

However, with central government distracted, there are opportunities for councils. A political vacuum exists that local leaders have the potential to exploit. An absence in legislation relating to local government is surely welcome – no more Housing & Planning Acts for the next few years! But someone needs to work out how the poor are supported and the aged are cared for. Greg Clark will address a sector desperate for reassurance at next month’s Local Government Association annual conference but it is hard to believe anything other than that Westminster will be distracted. There is surely a role for visionary local leaders to step into the breach.

The 52-48% referendum vote was conclusive but this headline figure masks huge splits in society. London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted one way; shire England the other. Major cities backed Remain; their surrounding areas backed out. The different viewpoints of different areas of the country have never been more apparent. With the UK entering a period of profound constitutional change, there has never been a more powerful time to shift power away from the centre.

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