EXCLUSIVE: Sector fumes over lack of pre-Brexit briefing

By Dan Peters | 21 February 2019

Councils have threatened to walk away from Government attempts to engage with them on Brexit amid growing frustrations about the response to their concerns.

Regional returns from local authorities collated by a network of nine chief executives, whose names were only formally announced two weeks ago, contained a ‘clear message’ that feedback from Whitehall has been ‘incomplete and may not result in continued buy-in to the MHCLG [Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government] process’.

A summary of the ‘big issues’ from the regional returns last week, compiled by the Local Government Association (LGA) and seen by The MJ, read: ‘All regional returns stress the need of a rapid and detailed response to weekly concerns raised by LAs [local authorities] through this channel from Whitehall.

‘There continues to be some big gaps in information (e.g. contingency plans for EU elections if Article 50 is extended and the detail of national fuel planning).

‘Some issues continue to dominate regional returns and the lack of clarity and unresolved issues makes robust planning extremely difficult.

'Escalation and rapid response from Whitehall is needed urgently.’

Head of policy at the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, Piali Das Gupta, said it was now ‘urgent’ that councils received the detailed information they needed to properly plan for Brexit.

Writing on a blog last week, executive leader for local services at the National Audit Office, Abdool Kara, said: ‘Local government is hardly the only sector struggling with the uncertainties around leaving the EU, but I believe that, to date, there has been an underestimation of the sector’s role and responsibilities in managing the impacts of a no-deal exit scenario.’

One senior officer directly involved in regular meetings with Government officials said their response to questions about the UK Shared Prosperity Fund that they intended to consult ‘shortly’ was ‘worse than useless’.

The officer added: ‘The Government has mishandled the arrangements for exit from the EU in spectacular fashion.

'There are less than six weeks to go to exit day and councils still have no idea what they are really planning for.

'Information flows have been slow, non-existent or uncoordinated.’

Council trading standards teams believe that there will be a ‘significant increase’ in demand on already-stretched regulatory services teams after Brexit but that this still needs to ‘resonate in Whitehall’.

There is also ‘considerable concern’ among local authorities that a small reduction in the adult social care workforce after Brexit will have a substantial impact.

One of the nine council chief executives said: ‘There is no road map for managing the implications of our exit from the EU.

'Therefore, the dealings between the centre and local government are iterative, and we will make mistakes, but the shared endeavour is clear and vital.

‘Councils are experienced and highly competent in leading and supporting communities when called upon.

'We are planning for a set of scenarios that are yet to be defined - let alone realised - but nevertheless our knowledge bank is second to none and local government is key in the coming weeks and indeed years as our relationship with Europe resets.’

A LGA spokesman said: ‘In an uncertain context, councils are preparing as well as they can for our exit from the EU.

‘The work of the nine regional chief executives is an important part of the communications link between all parts of central government and councils.

'This approach is in its early days, having only started last month, and councils are fully committed to making it effective.

'Councils are rightly using this channel to raise issues like the need for councils to have sight of transport modelling at ports in the event of a no-deal Brexit.’

A spokeswoman for MHCLG said: ‘We are working with a network of nine regional chief executives across England, as well as the LGA, to act as a vital communications link within the sector and share information on Brexit preparations.’

For an analysis of how councils are preparing for Brexit click here

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Whitehall Local Government Association Adult social care MHCLG Chief executives Policy SOLACE NAO Trading standards EU Brexit

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