Lord Porter is Chairman of the Local Government Association.
As we start a new year, and with the negotiations surrounding the UK’s departure from the EU having progressed to the second phase, now is an appropriate time to reflect on the opportunities that lie ahead for local government as we prepare for Brexit.
Above all, Brexit should provide an opportunity for the Government to build on the ambitious programme of devolution of powers to local communities that it has overseen over the past seven years.
Put simply, I am clear that Brexit should not simply mean a transfer of powers from Brussels to Westminster, Holyrood, Stormont, and Cardiff Bay. Rather, it must lead to new legislative freedoms and flexibilities for all councils across the country. Within this context, and whilst also acknowledging that Brexit also poses challenges for local government, I would like to highlight a couple of areas where it offers exciting opportunities.
Firstly, there is the issue of structural funding. Following the referendum, the Prime Minister pledged to create a UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) to replace the money that local areas currently receive from the EU. Having welcomed this, council leaders are now keen to work with the Government on the details of how this scheme will be administered. In particular, we see this as a real opportunity to introduce a new, more localised model, rather than create a like-for-like replacement of current EU funding programmes which are often held up in bureaucracy and delay. Put simply, Brexit provides an opportunity to give local areas a greater say over how to target a new and simplified regional aid fund at local projects for the benefit of local people.
Secondly, there is the issue of how EU legislation impacts on local government. The raw figures are that there are over 12,000 EU Regulations currently in force in the UK, as well as 7,900 UK statutory instruments implementing EU Directives. An obvious example of where EU-origin laws might be made better through amendment is public procurement. Currently councils have to follow EU-wide advertising and award procedures when they buy goods and services. Not only does this process often sit uneasily with our aim of supporting the local economy, it can also take between three and 18 months, which is twice as long as typical private sector procurement. Post-Brexit, a lighter-touch system which simplifies this process, and provides more flexibility to promote local growth and local employment, is vital so that councils can procure to shorter timescales and lower administration costs for businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises.
In terms of current legislation, the LGA has also identified a number of areas where we can secure ‘quick wins’ following Brexit. For example, a long running court case relating to licence fees payable by sex shops under the EU Services Directive has created uncertainty about the extent to which councils can charge for the cost of enforcement activity within their licensing fees. Brexit will give us the opportunity to reaffirm a recent UK Supreme Court ruling and clarify in domestic law the UK’s traditionally accepted approach that licensees should meet the cost of licensing frameworks, including enforcement.
Whatever your views on Brexit, the government is clear that it is happening. For local government it means that there will be a number of opportunities to provide services in a more efficient way to benefit all of our residents. I am determined that we seize these opportunities.