It is taking strong leadership and real discipline at a local level to manage the level of uncertainty caused by Brexit and the lack of a consistent, well evidenced and joined-up national approach.
In Bristol we started preparing early. The day after the 2016 referendum I convened a city-wide response group including business, health, police, universities, regional government and the voluntary and community sectors. We submitted evidence to government by late 2016 and went on to create a council-led No Deal Scenario Assessment shared with partners by late 2018.
Our council Brexit Project Board was formed by January 2019 and a lead officer was designated. It focuses on nine work streams: City Economy, Civil Contingencies and business continuity, Community Cohesion, EU Settlement Scheme, Housing, Regulatory Services, Social Care, Supply Chain, and Workforce.
The risks run in to several millions of pounds. Even if only one or two key risks are realised – for example social care provider failure – then it could more than wipe out the £314k provided by the government to support preparedness. This should be of major concern; especially given the government’s approach to funding new burdens is on a case-by-case basis, likely relying on us to evidence direct links to Brexit as the cause.
Well publicised civil contingency issues such as food and fuel shortage factor highly in preparation, but these are the kind of things we always have plans for. More troubling over the medium term are social care, supply chain assurance, the risk of the EU Settlement Scheme not reaching everyone it should, and the lack of longer-term certainty making meaningful financial planning nigh-on impossible.
In spite of our best preparations we have very little control over a social care provider failing due to cash-flow or staffing issues post-Brexit; nor can we be 100% certain that our 10,000+ suppliers and their onward suppliers can definitely provide the goods, services and materials we need. There’s particular concern in the construction sector and the potential knock-on impact on housing numbers and major infrastructure projects is troubling.
We are being proactive wherever possible and I’m proud that Bristol has put people first: focusing on community cohesion with our #WeAreBristol campaign, facilitated community conversations and partnership working with citizen advice groups. We also chose to establish a free assisted-digital application service for the EU Settlement Scheme, including promoting it via consulates and even running a special three-day event for registrations in partnership with the Portuguese Consulate. So far over 8,500 EU citizens in Bristol have successfully applied to the scheme (around 40% of the eligible population), the third highest amongst Core Cities. Meanwhile alongside our Combined Authority and business sector colleagues we have a keen eye on any growth opportunities identified by local industries, as well as a well-developed understanding of risks to businesses.
Behind the scenes we’ve employed additional staff to assist with procurement data analysis, effective communications and to bolster our Civil Protection Unit. We’re trying to strike a delicate balance between spending on preparation now and keeping some funding back for later, given the lack of guaranteed reimbursement from Government.
We can all appreciate that this country is trying to do something unprecedented and incredibly complex. Here are just a few practical things the government could do which would help:
- Add care workers to the list of shortage occupations excluded from the Government’s proposed £30,000 minimum salary threshold for migrants. Let’s not exacerbate the country’s social care crisis for no good reason.
- Provide more detailed communications toolkits to avoid local duplication and introduce more streamlined reporting mechanisms across local authorities, regional networks and local resilience forums.
- Consult on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund as a matter of urgency. Make sure it is of equivalent value to the EU funding streams it will replace and is fully devolved and flexible so it can best suit local needs.
For now we have no option but to focus our scarce resources on preparing for 31 October and all eventualities, hampered by national uncertainty that shows no sign of abating.
Marvin Rees is Mayor of Bristol City Council