1. Governance
October 25, 2017

The government must work with councils, to protect us from the harsh effect of Brexit

By Joe Anderson

The Labour mayor of Liverpool on the government’s lack of planning for Brexit. 

No one should be in any doubt just how big a change to our national political and economic life Brexit will be. But domestic issues matter too – and they are falling off ministers’ agendas.

Just look around. There is a snaking queue of topics that have been abandoned as the government becomes convulsed by Brexit. Our NHS and social care system is buckling under the strain of unfunded demands. We have a housing market that has priced a generation of young people out of home-ownership. A criminal justice system that is struggling to cope. The Universal Credit roll-out – the biggest-ever change in the benefits system – leaving claimants destitute as they wait six weeks for payments. Not to mention that we are a month away from a make or break Budget.

The Chancellor will either signal a change of direction on austerity and usher in a better balance of capital spending between northern and southern parts of this country – or he won’t. At which point, the Northern Powerhouse concept will be stone-cold dead, just when the need to join-up our northern cities in order to realise their economic potential has never been more necessary.

We are in the worst of both worlds. Brexit and the fortunes of the Conservative party have swamped domestic British politics to the point that there is little focus on anything else. It dominates our foreign and domestic agenda, yet we have nothing even close to a national conversation about our economic resilience ahead of leaving the European Union in 2019, despite ministers apparently sitting on dozens of reports into the consequences on different sectors of the economy.

Just as a stopped clock is right twice a day, so there will be businesses and parts of Britain that will benefit from leaving the EU. However, my hunch is that there will be far fewer of the former and many more of the latter. This makes the sheer lack of scenario-planning by Whitehall a national scandal.

We are poorly-equipped for the changes to come and Brexit must be seen as an existential threat to cities like mine. Our local economy has made great strides in recent years – despite the relentless headwind of austerity, which has seen us lose two-thirds of our budget, some £420m, since 2010.

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However much ministers urge us to rejoice and see the wondrous potential of Brexit, they are doing nothing to prepare us for the hard reality of finding ourselves outside the European Union and single market.

There doesn’t seem to be anyone on Whitehall’s bridge steering the national economy away from the rocks in front of us. Indeed, the creeping prospect of there being no deal with the European Commission – a hard Brexit – adds yet another layer of uncertainty, while our lopsided economy – already tilted towards the interests of London and financial services – will become even more unbalanced, hurting our major cities outside the capital the most.

Amid such uncertainty at the top of government it’s inevitable that investors’ confidence will be damaged, which will affect growth and hurt jobs and living standards.

For Liverpool – where 58 per cent of voters wanted to remain in the EU – the gamble on Brexit comes at too high a price. But if we are going to leave the European Union it’s a dereliction of duty not to plan and prepare for the predictable effects of Brexit and ministers have a duty to use the forthcoming Budget help shield us from its harsh effects.

Over to you Chancellor.

Joe Anderson is mayor of Liverpool.

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