Housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire is considering giving local enterprise partnerships greater powers and authority post-Brexit.
Appearing before the Commons housing, communities and local government committee yesterday, Mr Brokenshire was challenged on the future of devolution and how the shared prosperity fund, which the government has said will replace European Union structural funds when the UK leaves the European Union, will be distributed.
He said the Ministry of Housing Communities & Local Government was looking “very carefully” at what decision-making role LEPs will have within any devolved responsibilities, as well as their relationships with councils, to establish “where you can get that better assessment of need and how to apply resources against that”.
Mr Brokenshire later added: “We are looking at the way LEPs may have greater spending power and authority - what then their relationship therefore is with individual communities.
“Equally LEPs can be quite distant and therefore [we are considering] how we understand what the needs of particular communities are, or towns maybe, in their areas.”
Senior councillors have voiced concerns that the post-Brexit shared prosperity fund will be allocated to local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) rather than councils.
During meetings earlier this month of both the Local Government Association’s councillors’ forum and executive, some councillors said they had been led to believe by Ministry officials or their local LEP that the fund would not be distributed through councils.
Mr Brokenshire told MPs there would be a “conversation” through the forthcoming consultation on the shared prosperity fund once Brexit has been delivered.
He added Brexit was “an opportunity… to remake our relationships in local government and our relationships between national government and local government”.
He added: “I think there is a genuinely exciting and positive debate to be had over where relationships, where power, where community actually sit.”
Mr Brokenshire accepted that councils have “clear and direct” accountability to communities but said the consultation on the shared prosperity fund would examine “what accountability needs to look like”.
He added: “It is also about looking at what structures there may be that aid that ability for regions or areas to be able to have that greater allocation - the position of where funds may go - but equally the relationship between LEPs and local authorities and how we ensure that we get that sense of dynamism from the private sector as well as amplifying the dynamism from the local government sector - how you ensure that is brought together.”
Mr Brokenshire said legislation is not necessarily required to deliver the shared prosperity fund if changes are made to how funds are structured and existing “flexibilities” used.
Earlier in the session, Portsmouth City Council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson (Lib Dem) told the committee the council had to allocate £4m from its reserves for measures aimed at minimising traffic congestion around the port in the event of a no-deal Brexit because requests for support from the Department for Transport had been “rebuffed”.
He said DfT’s modelling of the potential impact was flawed because it “presumes there is no other traffic going into Portsmouth”.
Responding to the concerns, Mr Brokenshire acknowledged there was a disagreement between Portsmouth and DfT over the potential implications for port traffic in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
A DfT spokesperson said: “We continue to work closely with local resilience forums, including the Hampshire and Isle of Wight [local resilience forum], to help them prepare for any potential impacts of the UK’s exit from the EU.
“Leaving with a deal is still our priority, but as a responsible Government it is only right that we push on with contingency planning.”