Commentary on how Brexit dominated the LGA conference
Green paper progress of the day: Social care green paper to include younger adults
Post Brexit funding offer of the day: EU negotiator: councils could access funding post-Brexit
Not so shocking revelelation of the day: PAC: Government lacks full understanding of councils’ financial woe
The Local Government Association annual conference has a habit of taking place against the backdrop of turmoil and this year’s event was no exception.
It began with a tumultuous penalty shootout and it finishes a day before the cabinet meets at Chequers to decide what sort of Brexit we should have. It’s probably fair to say that the conclusion of the second, historic, event will not unite the nation in a glorious frenzy of flag-waving and lager-fuelled renditions of Three Lions. However, it could culminate in the fall of the government (which itself may be toasted with a fair bit of lager).
The undertone of this year’s LGA conference was not dissimilar to that of two years ago which coincided with the Conservative party leadership contest that followed David Cameron’s Brexit-induced resignation. Then, communities secretary Greg Clark effectively had to admit that he had no idea what was going on: the country effectively lacked leadership. This time, it just feels as if the government might finally be forced to recognise that compromise and inaction cannot go on forever: it needs to finally get off the fence.
Brexit loomed over this conference from start to finish. In his opening speech to the event, LGA Labour group leader Nick Forbes said: “People voted for change. They will expect to see a difference in their local area. We didn’t paint those claims on the side of the bus but they are challenges we will have to deal with.”
On the final morning of the conference, the LGA’s Brexit spokesman Kevin Bentley (Con) set out how the association was working with the government on affected areas including trading standards and regional growth. Nevertheless his claim that Brexit was going “rather well” for local government was perhaps a trifle on the optimistic side.
Even homes and communities secretary James Brokenshire admitted in his conference speech that “there’s clearly more to do on this issue”, with regards to the challenges of preparing areas for Brexit. His announcement of a “delivery board with local government that will support the implementation of changes linked to Brexit within the sector” felt, dare we say it, it too little, too late.
In an LGC interview, Department for Exiting the EU minister Suella Braverman said: “We are getting into the time when delivery now becomes important” and the board announced by Mr Brokenshire would provide a “formal mechanism” to enable local government to plan ahead. Plan ahead? It’s only nine months away.
It all seems a little last minute.
In one typical worry, Cumbria CC deputy leader Ian Stewart (Lib Dem) expressed concern about the imminent cliff edge of the ending of European funds for economically disadvantaged areas such as his own. Jobs and livelihoods rest on this.
As commentators continually mentioned throughout the past 48 hours, come the next LGA annual conference Britain will be liberated from Europe – or have gone over the cliff-edge into the abyss of economic self-destruction, depending on your viewpoint. Decisions need to be taken now and local government has been pretty much bypassed so far.
One senior figure recently expressed dismay to LGC about Whitehall failure to recognise the post-Brexit potential of local government to solve many of the problems the centre has been unable to tackle.
It all made one of the more optimistic parts of the speech of Hilary Benn (Lab), chair of the Commons exiting the EU select committee, ring a little hollow. He said, with reference to devolution: “For local government this is a perfect time – this is a real opportunity to say give us the tools and let us get on with the job.” One fears the glory of striking a win-win trade deal with Donald Trump’s America has blinded ministers to the need to bring power closer to local populations.
An opportunity is being missed and government inaction has created instability and worry. Tough choices have been ducked.
Northamptonshire CC is perhaps local government’s best example of a body which failed to do the tough stuff sufficiently early. It retained high staffing levels for too long; it kept its libraries open too long and it has become a byword for incompetence.
The government’s lame preparations for Brexit have been like Northamptonshire times 10,000.
Nick Golding, editor, LGC