Almost three years have passed since the EU referendum in June 2016 and, yet with only a few days to go before the UK is due to “Brexit”, we seem to be no clearer on how that is going to take place.
The Council has been busy in recent months making preparations for the variety of possible outcomes still on the table. Leaving the EU will impact not just on the many services we provide for the public but also on local residents and businesses. Some of these plans may never see the light of day but it is only right that we make careful assessments across the board. I have been responsible for co-ordinating those efforts, taking into account the short term issues (including crashing out without a deal) as well as those that arise in the medium and longer terms.
As it stands, the Council employs around 30 members of staff that we know are “EU” nationals, approximately 0.1% of our workforce. We are also aware that there may be many more in a similar position amongst those employed by contractors and partners providing services on our behalf. We are ensuring that appropriate support is given to those employees to enable them to apply for the Home Office EU Settled Status Scheme should they wish to do so. The Council is also in the process of considering what help we can deliver in terms of a digital assist service to other residents who will have to go down the same route.
Similarly, our local economy with its large manufacturing base has to deal with the uncertainty of our future relationship with the EU in terms of access to markets and the movement of people. There is evidence that a number of companies based in the County are delaying investment decisions as a result of the ongoing confusion, and the Council’s Business Support Team are actively engaged with a number of those facing difficulty.
Neath Port Talbot has, of course, been a major beneficiary of EU funding enabling several regeneration programmes designed to increase prosperity and generate economic growth across the County Borough. Whilst the UK Treasury has agreed to underwrite all expenditure during the life of such projects until the end of 2020, there remains little clarity on what any successor funding programme would look like. The UK Government has announced a Shared Prosperity Fund but not made clear any key details on how this will operate or how the funding will be distributed. There is a clear risk that this will mean less funding to Neath Port Talbot and a reduced ability to deliver on our commitments to modernise and diversify the local economy. As a Council, we are continuing to lobby hard alongside the Welsh Local Government Association and the Welsh Government, so that our part of the world does not lose out.
Many other issues have also been considered as part of our work including emergency planning, legal certainty (several of our services are underpinned by existing EU law with no replacement legislation currently in the pipeline), the consequences of the forecasted general economic post-Brexit downturn (increased inflation / costs and decisions on taxation and public service investment) and should a no deal Brexit emerge, any announcements that are made as part of the Chancellor’s mooted “Emergency Budget”.
Last, but by no means least, at the time of writing there is still the chance of there being one or more major election events in the next few months – be it fresh European Parliamentary Elections, a General Election or a 2nd EU referendum. The Council is responsible for administering all of these in Neath Port Talbot and plans are now in place to deal with any one of these should the need arise.
Brexit is certainly proving to be a moveable feast, taking up considerable time, energy and resource at all levels of Government. There are no simple or easy answers to any of the questions it poses but, as a Council, we are keeping a close eye on what it will mean for Neath Port Talbot and preparing for it the best that we can.
Councillor Anthony Taylor