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Brexit will 'take back control' - but who are we giving it to?

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

“Britain is the most centralised country in the Western world. Its political system is weighted overwhelmingly towards Westminster, with few institutional safeguards against the writ of Parliament, itself increasingly in thrall to the executive. Of every £1 raised in taxation, 91 pence is controlled and allocated by central government.”

In an essay for the London Review of Books, Tom Crewe may have comprehensively summarised the argument put forward today by two groups representing 50 urban areas and more than 25% of the English population.

LGC reported today how the chairs of Key Cities and the Special Interest Group of Municipal Authorities, Peter Box (Lab) and Sir Stephen Houghton (Lab) respectively, last week wrote a letter to the Brexit secretary David Davis urging him to ensure councils play a more active role in negotiations over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

The chairs also called on Mr Davis to address “historic imbalances” across the country by giving local government a greater say in how the Brexit negotiations will proceed.

In an article for LGC the pair warned that the “insular” nature of the Brexit negotiations to date had done “little to ameliorate” a general feeling of exclusion by councils.

“There is little evidence that local government or the English regions will have any significant influence over our direction of travel [in the negotiations],” Sir Stephen and Cllr Box wrote.

Countdown

With only 283 days until Brexit Day, the clock is quickly running down for the government to make agreements that will protect jobs and economies.

A June report from the Institute for Government (IfG) said an “extraordinary” culture of centralisation and extreme secrecy in central government was perhaps the biggest bottleneck to these negotiations.

And England is not only centralised in the political realm, but the economic as well. Northern leaders have been lambasting the north-south economic divide for decades, with everything in London - from schools to trains - receiving disproportionately more cash than their northern counterparts.

“Given decades of unrivalled investment, London, the South East and the East of England are the UK’s only net positive contributors to the Treasury,” said Sir Stephen and Cllr Box.

Forget the debate about politicians having a meaningful say on the final deal, the time has come for areas to have a meaningful say in relation to what should happen in the future. 

Another way

Cabinet secretary and Theresa May’s de facto deputy David Lidington has previously signalled that “the vast majority of powers returning from Brussels will start off in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – and not in Whitehall”, while Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry said that devolution could be “the golden thread of Brexit”.

With these words in mind, it would seem that the potential for Brexit to provide councils with greater control over their affairs is but around the corner. Yet nothing can come from nothing and if Brexit Britain is starting as it means to go on, then the political future will be more centralised.

A spokesman for the Department for Exiting the European Union told LGC it has “an on-going dialogue with local councils and DExEU minister Suella Braverman is visiting as many areas as possible to hear their views and to feedback on progress to date”.

That’s all very well and good but it does not appear to be enough. 

In their letter to Mr Davis, Sir Stephen and Cllr Box said: “Local government, like the rest of the country, has so far been kept in the dark during the Brexit negotiations – and the little information that has been disclosed suggests Brexit will have a fundamentally unbalanced regional impact and present real challenges to overcome.”

The Vote Leave campaign said leaving the European Union would enable to the country to ‘take back control’. Local government is asking ‘…and giving it to whom?’

By Robert Cusack, reporter

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