Cllr Izzi Seccombe is the Leader of the Conservative Group of the Local Government Association and the Leader of Warwickshire County Council.
The announcement of the trade deal with the EU on Christmas Eve means that, four and a half years after the referendum, Brexit is now complete.
Conservatives in local government welcomed the announcement of the deal, which provides much needed certainty for the businesses and residents that we represent, and I am sure that all Conservative Home readers will join with me in congratulating the Prime Minister for delivering on his promise at the 2019 General Election to ‘Get Brexit Done.’
So now that we have the trade deal, what are the opportunities for local government that result from our exit from the EU?
In the limited amount of space available here, I want to focus on three particularly important issues: procurement, state aid, and the new UK Shared Prosperity Fund.
Prior to Brexit, councils had to follow EU-wide advertising and award procedures when they bought goods and services. Not only did this process often sit uneasily with their aim of supporting the local economy, it could also take between three and eighteen months, which is twice as long as typical private sector procurement
Councils need a simple and efficient public procurement regime which ensures the best value for public money and respects local decision-making. Shorter timescales, lighter-touch advertising requirements and award procedures, a speedier way of dealing with legal challenges, greater negotiation with suppliers, and a new focus on SMEs and Voluntary Community and Social Enterprises (VCSEs) are all potential benefits of a reformed UK-legislated procurement process.
In this new environment, developing procurement skills within councils is crucial to helping us achieve significant savings for the taxpayer and deliver improved services for residents.
In recognition of this, the LGA has been working with the Cabinet Office to offer contract management training for council officers, and more than a thousand have taken advantage of this offer to date. Councils or councillors interested in this can email firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
Encouragingly, the Government has already launched a Green Paper, Transforming Public Procurement, which sets out its proposed changes to the UK’s procurement rules, putting value for money and transparency at the heart of the new approach and including plans to help unleash wider social benefits in line with the existing spirit of the Public Services (Social Value) Act that councils have been following since 2012.
The proposals also include measures that councils have been calling for to assist them in the procurement process, including providing more scope to exclude suppliers for poor past performance and corruption-related issues, as well as reforming the remedies system by making the court review process faster and less costly, capping damages, and investigating the feasibility of tribunals.
Bearing all this in mind, I would encourage all those involved in public procurement to have their say and respond to the consultation by the deadline of the 10th March.
Secondly, our exit from the EU also provides an opportunity to reform how grants and public subsidies work. In so doing, I am clear that any new state aid rules should be based on local government’s experience of what works on the ground.
Processes can be simplified by introducing flexibilities for councils. For example, future changes to the UK’s state aid policy could allow support for non-profit-making activities or social enterprises who reinvest surplus back into the local community. Similarly, those organisations that operate in the culture, heritage, arts, or non-profit sports sectors may also merit a more flexible approach.
Thirdly, since the referendum, the LGA has been lobbying the Government to ensure that there will be a suitable domestic replacement for EU regional funding. Put simply, Brexit provides an opportunity to give local areas a greater say over how to target a new and simplified regional aid fund at local projects for the benefit of local people.
This should nicely complement the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, and I was pleased that the recent Spending Review contained the “Heads of Terms” for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (the Government’s replacement of the European Structural and Investment Funds), whilst also confirming that the fund itself will be worth at least £1.5 billion a year.
I welcome the clarity this announcement has brought, and local government has made an offer to co-design the programme with Government and also the investment framework for local areas that sits behind it. The investment proposals and specific outcomes outlined in the UK wide investment framework need to be locally determined by councils and combined authorities as they have a democratic mandate to represent their communities, and it also needs to respect current local decision making and devolution agreements.
The additional £220 million to help local areas transition to the UKSPF in 2021/2022 by running pilots and new approaches is also to be welcomed. We are working with the Government and local areas to ensure there is a smooth transition to the new funding regime.
However we individually voted in the 2016 referendum, the reality is that Brexit has happened and it provides the opportunity for local government to build on the ambitious programme of devolution of powers to local communities that has taken place since 2010.
I am determined that in 2021 we seize the opportunities that are now offered to us to provide services in a more efficient, flexible, and responsive way to the residents that we represent.