Sometimes the simplest questions are the hardest to answer and that definitely applies when it comes to all things Brexit. I was recently asked what I thought the impact of Brexit would be on local government frontline services and after a pause and a few caveats I was able to give an answer which sounded something akin to the famous Donald Rumsfeld response about ‘known knowns and unknown unknowns.’
We already know that the devaluation of the pound following the referendum has increased the cost of UK imports like construction materials for housing and highways, plant and equipment for fleet, refuse and grounds maintenance; food ingredients for school meals and even chemicals and cleaning supplies for janitorial responsibilities.
In terms of the workforce we know there has already been a reduction in the numbers of European workers in services like homecare, with shortages rising to 400,000 by 2028 if freedom of movement goes, according to a recent IPPR report. We also know that we badly need housing and the building industry is also struggling for skilled staff. What we don’t yet know is whether a final deal will exacerbate this further.
In terms of treaties, legal requirements, regulations and standards, If the UK wishes to continue to trade with the EU 27 then it is likely in the short to mid term that there will be a requirement to adopt or closely mirror existing policies around climate change, health and hygiene, procurement and workforce matters. An example of this is for those authorities who have responsibilities for ports and harbours, can we really remain a point of entry for goods and produce to Europe if we are not closely in alignment to EU rules?
Another unknown is of course the impact on the UK economy. We have reached a point when the Prime Minister and Chancellor have both signalled an end to austerity. Perhaps now is the time for local government to really push the case for significant additional investment in the comprehensive spending review to help grow local economies and make them more resilient. The sector has shown that when it comes to delivering effectively, efficiently and entrepreneurially in difficult times then it is second to none.
One final thought is that given the uncertainty at Westminster and around the country it may be worthwhile placing local authority election teams on standby in case of another referendum or general election - who really knows what’s around the corner.