James Brokenshire has given a clear steer on local government reorganisation in his first interview with LGC since being appointed housing and communities secretary.
Mr Brokenshire said “there is a clear space and scope for unitary authorities”, adding that he wanted to engage with the sector on restructuring proposals.
Plans for new unitary councils in Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire are already being considered by the government but LGC research recently revealed how a number of other areas are also holding discussions on this issue. Today, Somerset CC became the latest council to get a unitary debate underway.
Speaking to LGC, Mr Brokenshire said: “There is a clear space and scope for unitary authorities. Obviously it is seeing where there is a need for that and yes, there are proposals on the table that my predecessor had been considering and I will now be looking at.
“It’s [looking at] how we are best able to deliver quality, sustainable services for local government and the best model for doing that.
“There are different challenges between the different tiers of authorities under the current construct and where a unitary structure may make sense.
“There are further proposals that are coming through, I know, but I want to listen at this stage. I want to hear from the sector on the benefits that are being experienced.
“But obviously I am looking closely at the sustainability of local government moving forward and where devolution and unitary authorities can seek to make a difference then I do want to advance that agenda.”
Mr Brokenshire, a former Northern Ireland secretary and immigration minister, has replaced Sajid Javid after the latter was moved to the Home Office in Monday’s mini reshuffle of Theresa May’s cabinet.
When housing and communities secretary, Mr Javid repeatedly stated tackling the housing crisis was his “top priority”. As a result he drew criticism from some parts of the sector for appearing to pay less attention to other areas within the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government’s remit.
Mr Brokenshire said while “seeking to follow through on the government’s ambition and intent to deliver more homes for the future” and “giving people that chance in life to get their own home is very much at the forefront of my agenda”, he spoke of “partnering with local government” more broadly and acknowledged “there are challenges on finance and social care” too.
On social care Mr Brokenshire said: “I know there are challenges and pressures from adults and children’s social care, but also [with] some of the standards that are being maintained around some of this too.”
He acknowledged there have been some “critical reports that have been made against councils” but added the ministry is working with the Department for Education and the Department for Health & Social Care to help address this as part of the social care green paper.
“I do recognise the challenges and pressures but I believe there are solutions and it is about the delivery of good services but also in that sustainable way which is what this is all about,” said Mr Brokenshire. “I very much look forward to listening to what local councils are saying, and have been saying to me, but in my new role engaging closely in that fashion while also working closely with colleagues across government too.”
Last week the Commons’ housing, communities and local government committee said uncertainty over business rates reforms had “negatively affected councils’ financial planning” and urged for local government as a whole to be given more money.
When asked if he agreed with that sentiment, Mr Brokenshire said the government had “given more funding to local councils with a real terms increase” which “does acknowledge some of the pressures councils have been experiencing”. But despite only being in the job a matter of days Mr Brokenshire said he was already “picking up the points that are being made” on the funding issue and he looked forward to working with both the select committee and the wider sector.
He said there had been a “positive benefit” from the business rates retention pilots and that it is an agenda that “I look forward to advancing”. He added he will be making further announcements on this issue “shortly”.
Mr Brokenshire also said he was “committed to following through” on the fair funding review.
In his first appearance before MPs in his new role – just four hours after being appointed – Mr Brokenshire spoke of how “local government is in my blood”. Mr Brokenshire is the son of the late Peter Brokenshire who served as chief executive of Epping Forest DC followed by Greenwich LBC before he joined the Audit Commission as a director.
In his new role Mr Brokenshire said he wanted to “shine a light” on examples of good work in the sector “and work with local authorities to see that the really good practice is applied more broadly.”