A blustery future is one of Brexit’s few certainties

As part of PublicTechnology’s Brexit series, Socitm president Geoff Connell says that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about the effect of the referendum as there is still much legal wrangling to be done.

There’s still much to be done before the UK leaves the EU, says Geoff Connell – Photo credit: iStock

In this period of instability, let’s get one thing straight. Brexit hasn’t happened yet. So when we talk about its impact, we’re really talking about the fallout from the referendum result for now.

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Chiefly, that’s about 10 days of speculation, of confusion, of MPs playing a shambolic hokey cokey, and – most of all – unprecedented uncertainty.

That uncertainty is the leading theme for local government and Socitm members. As such, we can only really consider a set of hypothetical possibilities – but they are certainly grounded in our experience.

First let’s note that before Brexit actually happens in its complete legal sense, there’s a lot of water to flow under a lot of bridges.

Not least there is the prospect of a potential UK general election – and possible change in colour of government – before parliament votes on the enabling legislation and (perhaps) Article 50 notification that starts the Brexit process proper.

So what’s the immediate impact?

At the moment, the government is, more or less, counselling ‘keep calm and carry on’. And certainly, not much on the ground has changed yet.

But an uncertain future makes for unsteady footing, especially as our members continue to build their digital transformation plans, requiring senior buy-in and some level of initial investment.

The common sense approach would be to accelerate certain aspects of digital transformation to ensure we are world-class when, or even if, Brexit happens.

Meanwhile, the threat of an extra austerity budget, which would very probably have impacted the funding of Socitm members’ organisations, has gone away.

But that doesn’t rule out more austerity and retrenchment. So arguably, it’s more of the hard times that our members are all too familiar with.

Single market deal

In the medium term, if the UK – as a whole or in parts – negotiates single market access terms pretty much like the ones we have now, then presumably new EU data and information regulations will come into force as per their current timetables.

The fate of existing EU-derived UK laws in such spaces remains uncertain right now. They may be left in place, or repealed, or replaced.

If an all-encompassing deal like the existing single market is not achieved, then things get more complicated.

One would presume we’d be negotiating our own version of Privacy Shield deals with the USA and the EU, for example, as we’d no longer be covered by the EU membership.

The loss of EU programmes and funding – much of which is channelled into localities via structural, business support and cultural projects – will be felt in many parts of the UK.

That will undoubtedly put additional strain on some central-local government channels, as work is done to replace lost monies or counter the losses by other means.

And let’s not forget the other storms on the horizon that are likely to be stirred by Brexit.

The divide between the North-West and South-East of the UK might worsen, for example, as investment in 5G and super-fast broadband is ramped up in affluent areas and neglected in others.

Or, the divide might become an abyss as there is greater pressure on councils to make savings, coupled with a brain-drain of digitally-skilled people southwards – whether that is to London, mainland Europe or elsewhere.

We can but hope that the economic miracle some promised before the results came in does, in fact, arrive to relieve some of the pressures.

But, whatever happens, local authorities must continue to provide services. And their efficiency, improvement and digital transformation programmes will have to continue.

So perhaps we would be better to crack on more quickly – to make sure we are ready to adapt to the changing circumstances.

Either way, Socitm members would do well to keep an eye on the bellwether and prepare for blustery times ahead. 


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