Before I write a column, I take a piece of paper and fill it with questions.
Once I’ve filled a page, I then circle the most interesting and write these on another sheet. I take a moment to consider these queries and finally, when there are no more thoughts left to explore, I write one more question, the governing thought, right at the top of the page.
Like a climber reaching a summit, I have finally found a three hundred and sixty degree view. Still clarity.
Now, this is a lie. Well, not a lie, but a dramatised version of the truth.
There are notes, and questions, but it’s always messy and disjointed and stretched over hours or even days. Often I have to repeat the exercise.
However, I really do always come down on a single dominating question. For this column, I settled on the following: why should the government care what local government thinks about Brexit?
Note this doesn’t mean the government won’t or hasn’t asked the sector for its opinion, or invited it to give evidence, or submit proposals. There are protocols to follow, egos to manage, relationships to maintain and the perception influence to peddle.
Also, my question presumes local government has a role in Brexit. Yet all of this is platitudinous if we can’t answer my question – and I don’t yet think we have.
In her evidence to the Brexit and local government parliamentary inquiry, Amelia Hadfield, professor of European relations at Canterbury Christ Church University, said of her research into the issue: “The main sense that I got was that the local authorities are simply not part of the Brexit conversation. It is not a bottom-up; there is a top-down structure.”
So why can’t local government cut through? I think it’s because the sector hasn’t yet been able to talk itself up as part of the answer to central government’s key question: how do we make a success of Brexit?
My assessment is there are three barriers to be negotiated if local government is to do that. None I should add are criticisms, merely observations.
First, to date local government’s contribution to the Brexit conversation has largely been defensive. How does it ensure the shared prosperity fund is an equitable replacement for EU structural funds, or maintain some access to the European Investment Bank?
These are important issues so this posture is understandable and not dissimilar to most other lobbies, but therein lies the problem. You risk looking just like every other snout at the trough.
Second, and I’m guilty of this from time to time, there is a tendency to overplay the negatives. Again, this is understandable as it keeps minds focused on the risks inherent in Brexit.
However, it also means local government has been less able to talk about how it can be a part of making Brexit a success. Instead, councils have sounded like an answer to the question: how do we mitigate the disaster that is Brexit?
Third, I’m simply not convinced a sector-wide approach can work here. There are too many competing interests. One of the most powerful arguments that local government must make is that leaving the EU will affect local areas differently.
While a sector might be able to draw together a washy consensus on structural funds, quotas, regulations, foreign direct investment, and so on, this will be subject to the law of lowest common denominators. Which in the case of Brexit will always be loss aversion. Or, in other words, let’s try and keep what we have. Again, perfectly reasonable but it puts you right back at the first barrier.
So, why should the government care what local government thinks about Brexit? It seems to me the answer must be: because local government has ideas to make Brexit a success.
We need groups like Core Cities – whose recent meeting with European chief negotiator for the UK Michel Barnier was a coup and proves what can be done when you can prioritise a particular type of place – and like the County Councils Network, articulating positive ideas about the role of councils post-Brexit.
We need them and other groups to consider how councils can support international trade (both import and export), establish relationships, drive new foreign investment into the UK. To consider how councils could contribute to the framework for negotiating future trade agreements. I think the right place to start answering these questions is through smaller groups which will find it easier to be bold.
Of course, we still need the sector-wide approach to protect the integrity of what works. Ensuring Brexit doesn’t damage local government is critical. But it’s also all consuming, and there is a future beyond Brexit and I want to see councils shaping that too.
I want local government to have its seat at the Brexit negotiating table and I want it to have its seat on the plane taking UK plc to new markets. If we want the latter we have to start thinking about how local government can help make Brexit a success (or if you prefer, help mitigate the disaster.)
Liam Booth-Smith, chief executive, Localis