Northern Ireland’s 11 councils may have more limited functions than their counterparts in other areas of the UK, but they do have a crucial local civic leadership role. Speaking to The MJ, head of policy and governance for the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) Karen Smyth highlights councils’ strong influence across their areas as a particular strength as Brexit looms.
She outlines a ‘perfect storm ahead’ – one powered by continued uncertainty around Brexit, nearly three years without the power-sharing executive, and the removal of welfare reform mitigations at the end of March 2020. She emphasises her members are working closely with central Government on resilience in relation to Brexit – ‘economic resilience, and our emergency planning officers are involved in the Brexit scenario planning that councils are being drawn into’.
What are the main risks from a no-deal? ‘I wish I could tell you. There’s not a culture of secrecy, but there’s a limit to the information being shared.’
The Northern Ireland Civil Service has taken a lead on the communications mechanisms, rather than the UK Government, ‘so we are starting to see workshops for people in the food industries and that kind of thing’. But in her view ‘there is probably a lot less preparedness here than maybe the case in other places’.
She says councils are ‘glad for what we’ve got, but certainly we haven’t got the same partnership working that’s in place in other areas of the UK, and our resources are minimal’. Each council has been given £8,000 each so far for Brexit preparedness – but that figure ‘will go up’.
NILGA has had to ‘lobby quite strongly the local government departments to include us as a partner in the decision-making processes and the preparedness processes’.
The Government has put forward proposals under which Northern Ireland, along with the rest of the UK, would leave the EU’s customs territory on 31 October, but stay in the single market for goods – which would necessitate checks and controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The Northern Ireland Assembly would have the right to veto the arrangements every four years. But at the weekend, Brexit secretary Steve Barclay suggested the Government could change its proposals to give parties in Northern Ireland a veto on regulations that apply in the region after Brexit.
Ms Smyth says NILGA’s members are ‘doing the best they can with what they’ve got. Our officers have been doing a lot of scenario planning and there’s definitely been an uplift in activity, especially since we’ve got a Brexit co-ordinator in place now across Northern Ireland.’
But ‘interesting times’ lie ahead. ‘Quite a lot of our councils [will] have a land border with the EU and we are working out what that is going to mean. If you look at our manufacturing industry and our retail consortium in particular, they are all very vocal and worried about the impact of a no-deal Brexit. It could shut everything down here, so hopefully, we do get some arrangement put in place.’
She concludes that the impact on local government will be when people lose their jobs and may not be able to spend money in their local communities, and the effect on pay rates. ‘The figure I have heard quoted is that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, 40,000 jobs will be lost. Personally, I think that’s a conservative estimate, but it’s all unknown. Short-term I think it’s going to be particularly difficult.’