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Judith Blake: Brexit meeting with Barnier born of 'frustration'

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The chair of Core Cities has told LGC it is “astonishing” that the group of British city leaders and mayors have met with the chief European negotiator on Brexit before the UK government had even responded to its meeting request.

The government’s lack of communication with local government reflected Whitehall’s “very narrow focus” on Brexit and was symptomatic of an “inefficient” centralised system, Judith Blake (Lab) told LGC.

“I think there’s a frustration across local government that as a sector we’re not being listened to and our experience hasn’t been brought into the mix,” said Cllr Blake, who is also Leeds City Council leader.

“I’m afraid the government has not responded to our requests to meetings about the outcomes for Brexit - so we approached Michel Barnier who agreed to meet us.”

The 10 core city leaders and mayors travelled to Brussels to meet with Mr Barnier and a group of European city leaders on Monday.

According to Cllr Blake, the talks themselves focused on the UK’s “very deep relationships” with European cities and were not aimed at trying to shape the Brexit negotiations.

“We’ve made it absolutely clear from both sides that we are not in any way trying to shape the negotiations that are taking place,” Cllr Blake said. “Mr Barnier is not in a position to open up direct discussions with us on any of the matters that he’s discussing with the UK government.”

Core Cities represents the UK’s 10 largest cities which Cllr Blake said are responsible for a third of the UK’s exports and a quarter of its economic output.

In describing the group as a “significant player” in the UK’s economy, Cllr Blake said it would therefore be “very useful” to understand why the government hadn not yet responded to its meeting request.

“One of the reasons we want to sit down with the government is to talk about the repatriation of EU funding,” Cllr Blake said, referring to approximately £8bn regeneration funding that regions receive.

While the Conservatives pledged in their election manifesto to introduce a UK shared prosperity fund the government has not confirmed it will match the current level of European funding.

Cllr Blake said control over any forthcoming funds should be devolved.

“We want to respond to the people who voted to leave the EU by getting decision making down to a much more local, practical level,” Cllr Blake said.

“We want to open up a discussion with [government] about how that money will come direct down to the city regions in the way that it has been doing and truly represents the needs of the people in our areas.”

Should this happen it would show “a recognition that the centralised model we have in England is not fit for purpose and is holding back economic progress,” she added. “We need to devolve more powers and we need the ability to raise our own resource to deliver the productivity change the government has been talking about.”

A Department for Exiting the EU spokesman said: “The secretary of state meets a wide range of stakeholders from both the UK and Europe on a regular basis, including from local and regional government.

“We are seeking an unprecedented, comprehensive and ambitious economic partnership - one that works for all parts of the UK.”

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