MPs have called on the government to take “urgent action” to enable local authorities to prepare for the fallout from Brexit.
In a report published today, the housing, communities and local government committee sets out urgent priorities for Brexit preparations at a local level and calls for the government to “seize the opportunity” Brexit presents to re-evaluate how funding and powers can be devolved to local government.
Among its key recommendations is the “urgent advancement” of plans for the establishment of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, containing at least the same amount as the EU funding which is currently provided to local government. The committee clarifies that this should be in addition to the £1.6bn Stronger Towns Fund that was announced last month.
A full consultation on the details of the fund is now more than three months overdue. Although the government has guaranteed the funding promised to councils from various EU sources for the period ending in 2020, councils would usually currently be preparing for the bids to the EU for the period from 2021 by now, according to committee member Tan Dhesi (Lab).
Mr Dhesi told last Monday’s committee meeting on Brexit and local government that one senior officer involved in regular meetings with government officials had described their response to questions on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund as “worse than useless”, adding that on the brink of leaving the EU, ”councils have no idea what they are really planning for”.
Committee chair, Clive Betts (Lab) said the committee had heard from councils about challenges including the potential for gridlock on roads in Portsmouth, and whether key services will face pressures filling vacant posts. ”It is also absolutely imperative that the government now brings forward its plans for replacing the EU funding that some of the poorest communities across the country currently rely on,” he said. “If they want to ensure that local authorities face the challenges and seize the opportunities of Brexit they cannot keep leaving them in the dark.”
The committee’s report also recommends that the government consult local representatives on how infrastructure projects may be appropriately funded in future, given the loss of European Investment Bank loans.
And it calls for the government to publish its proposed new local devolution framework within one month of Brexit, highlighting the potential for devolution in sectors such as housing, transport, digital connectivity, health and wellbeing, trade and investment and productivity. The report recommends the government assess the “potential merits” of bringing forward an English Devolution Bill, as proposed by the Local Government Association, in its first Queen’s Speech after Brexit.
The committee also recommended the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government should monitor key sectors at risk of workforce shortages, particularly construction and social care, and make representations to the Home Office in favour of immigration schemes with sector-specific workforce shortages criteria, such as that being piloted for agricultural workers.
A spokesperson for the MHCLG said: “The select committee recognises the government’s work to help councils prepare for Brexit and we continue to engage with them so they are kept well-informed.
“We have updated national guidance to support them with any decision-making they may need to take and are also providing over £58 million to ensure they can provide their communities with the support they may require.”
During the inquiry Mr Brokenshire also suggested councils might be able to secure additional funding from the Treasury to deal with “short-term pressures as they emerge”.
Responding to the report Kevin Bentley, chair of the LGA’s Brexit Taskforce, said: “Councils are taking a lead on preparations for Brexit and are as prepared as they can be for Brexit given the uncertainty surrounding the process. There remain resource, information and advice gaps that councils are facing while helping their communities prepare.”