Local government should be reorganised around unitary city and county councils, a minister has said.
Stephen Williams, the Liberal Democrat minister in the Department for Communities & Local Government, told a question answer session for party members at the Lib Dem party conference in Glasgow that he was “not sure the party has properly thought through devolution, but I think devolution will happen in the next parliament”.
Stressing that he was speaking as a Lib Dem MP rather than for the government, Mr Williams said: “Eric Pickles says he has a pearl-handled revolver that he’ll use on any minister that mentions reorganisation, but speaking as myself, I’d say devolution has to be to area that people identify with.
“As a Bristol MP, I identify with Bristol and say an area 30-40 miles around it, but I don’t identify myself as a ‘south westerner’.”
Mr Williams later told LGC: “You have to devolve to places that people recognise as being where they live. In most of England that is a city with the area around it, and in some places it might be a county.
He reiterated a long-standing Lib Dem demand that any new devolved units of local government should be elected by the single transferable vote, the system used in Scotland, to break up areas of one-party control.
“You then have to say what Whitehall powers could be devolved, and it may be that in some cases there would have to be a partnership of authorities to have something large enough to devolve to.
“You need unitaries to give you the scale to do that. I see no reason why things like JobCentre Plus couldn’t go to councils.”
His comments came as fellow DCLG minister Kris Hopkins (Con) outlined his opposition to ‘disruptive’ unitary reorganisations.
Questioned by party members on housing policy, Mr Williams said the government had allowed for £150m more in borrowing over and above that permitted from the housing revenue account, after a clamour from councils to be allowed to borrow more for home building.
“Not enough bids have come forward so some of that is going to go unborrowed,” he said.
“Councils have just not come forward. Possibly they lack the capacity to undertake new building.”