Brexit has re-opened divisions between the central government and the devolved parliaments and city mayors, amid accusations of a London ‘power grab’.
The EU Withdrawal Bill currently making its way through the UK Parliament proposes that powers exercised at the EU level will return to Westminster post-Brexit.
This has raised concerns from the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that those powers will be “grabbed” by London. Agriculture, fisheries and planning are among the devolved policy areas that will be returned to London once Britain leaves the EU.
On Wednesday (21 March), Britain’s devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales approved bills that would keep their current powers unchanged after Brexit, potentially sparking a constitutional battle with London.
But concerns that Brexit could lead to centralisation of powers in London are also found in the UK’s major city mayors and regions.
Several city mayors are also lobbying for further decentralisation of power, arguing that greater local control will make the Brexit process smoother.
“There is reduced capacity in Westminster to deal with anything other than Brexit,” Cllr Huw Thomas, who leads Cardiff City council, told MPs at a hearing of the Constitutional Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
“This presents an opportunity for local governments to give our domestic agenda fresh impetus if power is devolved.”
Cllr Kevin Bentley, the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) Brexit Task and Finish Group, said devolution to local governments was “key to resolving Brexit, in particular, the issue of the skills gap. Lots of services that are directly delivered by local authorities come under central government control”.
“Local government and people have the best judgement of value for money. We need a kind of body with local representation so that the national skills fund can be easily devolved, allowing local governments to train young people with skills they can use in their local areas,” he added.
At a separate parliamentary committee hearing at Manchester University on Monday, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham argued that devolution to cities and regions would increase stability throughout the Brexit negotiations.
“Whitehall is creaking under the pressure of having to negotiate an exit from the European Union. Domestic issues are being neglected while the government’s bandwidth is completely taken up by Brexit,” he told MPs.
Burnham and Thomas both raised concerns over lack of engagement from Westminster with local government. Burnham told the committee that so far only one meeting had occurred involving Greater Manchester that related to the UK government’s Brexit negotiations.
“It [government engagement] has to be structured and not dependent on whether you know somebody in (Brexit Secretary) David Davis’s team,” Burnham said, adding: “We’re still in the dark about a lot of it.”
Thomas echoed Burnham’s frustrations, saying that “the threats that exist in regard to Brexit are not being discussed with local governments. We [Cardiff Council] have had no direct consultation with DExEU (the Department for Exiting the EU).”
Such has been the lack of access to UK ministers to discuss the implications of leaving the EU that 10 city leaders and mayors went to Brussels in February to meet with the EU’s Chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier.
“One of the reasons we want to sit down with the government is to talk about the repatriation of EU funding,” said Cllr Judith Blake, who leads Leeds City Council.
UK regions and cities currently receive around £8bn (€9 billion) of EU regeneration funding through the seven-year EU budget framework.