By Councillor Harry McGuigan, COSLA’s Spokesperson on Europe

"Scotland’s Council Leaders agreed unanimously, pre- referendum, that the benefits of staying in the EU considerably outweighed those of leaving.  There were strong feelings in favour of the rights we have gained and the relative peace we have enjoyed.  

We all know that some of our communities feel remote from decision making.  One of the biggest tasks is the pressing need to change that.  Instead Brexit is becoming another example of central decision-making taking place in a democratic vacuum.  This must change.

Councils want the best deal possible for our local communities.  For me this is through continued access to the Single European Market, and the ability to move freely within the EU.  We need access to key markets.  We need EU migrants to work in our local communities.

While current EU structures are imperfect, local councillors can and do influence policy, law and practice to the benefit of citizens.  With other European local authority associations we have a recognised place and right to contribute in key European meetings.

As I write Brexit means Brexit apparently, so I’m seeking to build on what councils have in the EU and make that better.  Councils have a relatively weak position in the UK and Scotland.  We need instead a process that ensures, wherever possible, services are controlled and delivered by the part of government closest to the citizens, rather than from the centre.  The UK is the only EU member state without constitutional protection for the right to local democracy. 

This needs to embedded into our domestic law.  If there are to be repatriated EU powers they mustn’t simply be kept at Westminster or Holyrood.

I am really concerned that the First Minister’s Standing Council on Europe hasn’t got Local Government expert input into it.  In the spirit of partnership, whatever it does advise must be considered jointly by Scottish and Local Government before becoming part of Scotland’s position.

I accept there are occasions where certain policy areas - state aid, environmental standards, funding for local economic development, farm and fisheries support and regulation – should be coordinated across the UK.  I want this to be done by a standing inter-country arrangement involving the UK local authority associations, devolved governments and relevant UK departments.  Without this there is a potential threat to the single UK market.  Such an arrangement could also develop successor trade agreements, and ensure the rights to accountable local services are not undermined.

Importantly, unnecessary restrictions on our ability to act locally should be removed.  For example, it would be good if we could have “use local” provisions in the contracts that supply school meals.  We could also require a local living wage for those who work in care home services.  Ideas such as this would play a meaningful role in reducing inequalities here after Brexit.

Another big issue is EU funding.  It’s important for two straightforward reasons.  The first is the quantity, about £100m a year through Local Government, which supports infrastructure investment, and diversifying and strengthening the economy by improving skills and supporting small businesses.  The second is the certainty a 7-year funding programme provides.  This has helped develop longer term, internationally co-ordinated priorities, without being constantly revisited as national Governments change.  We must retain something similar, ideally co-ordinated across the UK, with councils’ engagement.

I could identify many other things, for example a single UK or a series of regional investment or development banks will be needed to replace the European Investment Bank.

The EU has been good for Local Government and indeed, perhaps more importantly, the communities we are elected to serve and that is why I am determined that COSLA’s voice is heard in the weeks and months ahead."

Article published: 
Fri, 18/11/2016 - 01:00