Local leadership has never been so important

By Lord Kerslake | 04 September 2019

As I sit down to write this article, the greatest political and constitutional crisis in modern British times has still to be resolved. More than three years on and after countless Parliamentary debates, we still don’t know how the Brexit saga ends.

The Prime Minister has said that we must leave by the 31 October, do or die. I have been clear in my view that a no deal Brexit threatens immediate disruption to goods and services, economic downturn, the break up of the Union and the return of a hard border in Northern Ireland. Put simply, it is too big a risk for the country to take. A number of the Prime Minister’s former Cabinet colleagues feel the same way. However the Government insists they are well prepared for what might happen, the risks are manageable and any suggestion otherwise is simply ‘project fear’.

Local government doesn’t have the luxury of making this judgement but will most certainly have to deal with the consequences. They must put the safety and wellbeing of the residents first even if the risks are the result of decisions by national government. It is for this reason that local authorities have been working for some time with the government departments and the Local Government Association (LGA) to put contingency plans in place.

The Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has taken the lead in the coordination and by all accounts, relationships have been constructive. Weekly telephone conferences have taken place with the nine regional chief executives and regular returns made about the state of preparedness. More recently, the Civil Contingencies Unit in the Cabinet Office has taken on a stronger role.

Notwithstanding this work, there remain huge challenges for local government in managing the consequences of a no deal Brexit.

Firstly, there has been a plethora of advice and communications from different departments across government, which has only partly been offset by the efforts to coordinate this.

Secondly, there has been the ‘stop start’ nature of the planning. Preparations were stepped up as the 31 March deadline approached, then stepped down and have now been ramped up again by the new Government as we approach the second deadline.

Thirdly, the very contested nature of the debate has made it hard for the Government to be completely open about the impact. The leak of the Operation Yellowhammer report to the Sunday Times (the first leak that I have ever welcomed) let the public see for the first time the sheer scale of the risks we are facing: from major blockages at the ports, to the supply of medicines, to the availability of social workers, to the possibility of social disturbance – the list was a long and sobering one. And pretty much every one of them had significant implications for local government.

I have argued that the public should be able to see, unfiltered, the advice ministers are receiving. At the very least that information ought to be fully available to local government. But will the Government be willing to be this open in the currently febrile political environment we are working in? I doubt it.

Even if the Government was willing to be completely open there are still significant gaps in the information available. Which brings me to what I think may end up being the biggest challenge for local government – assessing the impact of the actions of individuals who will understandably seek to protect themselves and their families from the risks. Many years ago as a student I stopped taking sugar in my tea because an entirely false rumour, given some credence by the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, cleared the shelves. The consequences of a similar public reaction post a no deal Brexit are unlikely to be so benign.

Beyond preparing for the immediate fall out from a no deal Brexit should it happen, local government will need to play a key role in bringing the country together again following one of the most divisive periods in its history.

It is hard to think of a time when national politics have been so troubled and local leadership so important.

Lord Kerslake is a former head of the civil service and is chair of the UK 2070 Commission

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MHCLG Emergency planning Brexit LGA