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Can we please be told – truthfully – what’s happening to our EU funding?

Can we please be told – truthfully – what’s happening to our EU funding?

🕔14.Jul 2016

We’ve become used, in the great Devolution and Powerhouse stakes, to Greater Manchester beating the West Midlands in the race for funding, but now it seems they’re even beating us in the race for NO funding, writes Chris Game

Wednesday evening’s BBC News reported an apparently leaked briefing note from Manchester City Council’s Chief Executive, Sir Howard Bernstein, to Greater Manchester council leaders, telling them that the £320 million funding they were expecting in the period up to 2020 “would no longer be forthcoming”.

Greater Manchester had been expecting to receive £176 million from the European Regional Development Fund and £145 million from the European Social Fund – money that would be matched by a similar amount of non-EU funding. The West Midlands, as frequently noted in these columns, is a far less geographically coherent metropolitan region than Greater Manchester and direct comparisons are tricky, but, as Paul Dale recently reported, the anticipated 2014-20 figure for our five Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) would be around £600 million.

Several questions seem to arise.

  • Sir Howard’s report was dated 30th June – a week after the referendum vote – and the directly quoted “would not be forthcoming” phrase sounded significantly harder than anything we’d previously had from ministers, HM Treasury, or even the Local Government Association. So, was/is equivalent information in the hands of West Midlands Chief Executives, and, if so, have their leaders been similarly informed – because that certainly wasn’t the impression given in Paul’s report?
  • The Treasury’s response, quoted by the BBC, was essentially the same as it was during the referendum campaign: that while the UK remains a member of the EU, there is no immediate change to EU programmes. Is this another of those ‘economical with the truth’ statements?
  • Two days before the referendum vote, Andy Street, Chair of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP and now a possible mayoral candidate, told the Local Government Chronicle that he’d received Brexiteer assurances that the UK’s allocated €11bn EU structural investment between 2014 and 2020 would be replaced following a Leave vote. Even at the time the ‘assurances’ hardly seemed worth the paper they weren’t written on, so, since they don’t seem to have been mentioned since, can we now take for certain that they weren’t?
  • Does Sir Howard’s leaked briefing at least partly explain the extraordinarily effusive speech delivered by Greg Clark, Communities and Local Government Secretary, to last week’s Local Government Association conference – that seemed to take his general, and genuine, fondness for local government to new heights?

I’ll attempt to summarise. The minister started well, contrasting the madness he’d left behind at Westminster with local government’s characteristic “practicality and directness”.

He then quoted – somewhat chancily to a pretty mayoral-sceptic audience – the American academic and mayoral enthusiast, Benjamin Barber: “Presidents pontificate, mayors pick up the garbage”.

But Clark knew what he was doing and quickly explained.

You focus on the job in hand. Local government is agile, dependable, hands-on. So let me thank you, all you members and officers – not just for picking up the garbage, but for educating our children, giving security and respect to our elderly, for making those who would be left out of our society welcomed in …

And he was away – just couldn’t stop. There were paragraphs of this undiluted gratitude – to the extent that even some of the audience started to cringe.

Yet there didn’t seem to be any obvious catch. This guy really does like local government and sincerely wants the Government’s devolution agenda to continue, even if its hands-on architect, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, has to go as collateral Brexit damage – or, worse still, if Clark himself is reshuffled.

I wonder now, though, whether there was a catch. Almost immediately the referendum result was known, council leaders had started lobbying frantically for ‘local government’ to have a seat around the proverbial Brexit negotiation table. And one of Clark’s big conference announcements appeared to deliver.

The response to leaving the EU has to be a radically expanded role for local government. I’ve argued successfully for English local government to be part of the negotiations on the terms of our exit – a team representing all parts of local government: all parties and all parts of the country.

At which point, I confess my memory went back to one of the many discoveries of the location of King Arthur’s Camelot, and even of his mythical round table, which historians estimated could have seated 1,000 knights and hangers-on.

As it happens, the Institute for Government’s Nehal Davison recently produced a Brexit diagram in which representation of the European Commission, Council and Parliament, plus the Commonwealth, World Trade Organisation, UN, NATO and their respective member states, plus UK Government departments, the devolved nations, and 418 English councils would actually total roughly a thousand.

My bet now is this is what Clark secretly fears – that the Brexit table in practice will prove equally gross, and a seat will in itself guarantee virtually nothing – and hence the OTT flattery.

Whatever – to quote Tony Blair’s memo to President Bush – I think we should be told.

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