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OPINION - DELAY IS ANOTHER KICK IN THE TEETH

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You've got to laugh, haven't you? I certainly did. Sir Michael Lyons' long-running review has suffered more delays ...
You've got to laugh, haven't you? I certainly did. Sir Michael Lyons' long-running review has suffered more delays than the Northern line. At MORI's Christmas get-together last week, local government wags were swapping jokes about whether it was a case of Schubert's Unfinished symphony or I am reviewing the situation from the closing scenes of Oliver!

After all, it's not so long ago that Sir Michael was telling anyone who would listen that his December publication date was firm and there would be no further delays. But strange stories started to circulate. First Sir Michael had some holiday due and the report couldn't be published while he was out of the country. Then an official from the Government Office for London suggested that it was always intended to be a private report for ministers and might never be published.

And then the chancellor's announcement last week. Suddenly it all seems less amusing.

It is hard to resist drawing the conclusion that the government doesn't have a clue what it wants to do and is endlessly playing for time. Far from the new grown-up relationship heralded by Ruth Kelly in the white paper, it is a sad reminder of the contempt with which the centre has treated local government for too long.

Let's remind ourselves that this all started with Nick Raynsford's balance of funding review, which aimed to solve the council tax problem and was first announced in the 2001 white paper.

The council tax system is flawed and in desperate need of reform. It has carried too great a share of the tax-raising burden and council taxpayers should not be expected to carrying on shelling out more and more. If money to schools is taken out of the calculations, then since 1997, local government has seen an increase of only 14% in real terms; by comparison, the NHS has received 90%. Council taxpayers would be£250 better off per household if contributions from business to local services had kept up with inflation.

High hopes had been invested that Sir Michael would produce the key to unlock these problems. The original extension was to allow him to consider form and function. He did that in his interim report published earlier this year and his proposals were picked up in the white paper. We were told that the December report was to deal specifically with the finance issues. There is no good reason to delay this element of his report even if the chancellor now wants him to look at additional issues. How many more pensioners have to be jailed for non-payment of council tax before the government plucks up the courage to answer its own question?

Officers at the Local Government Association have told me to view this as an opportunity. By incorporating the reports of the three wise people Eddington, Barker and Leitch, there is a new opportunity to remake the case for greater devolution of the levers of economic prosperity, they hope. Yeah, right. Forgive me for not holding my breath.

So roll on March - the new date for Sir Michael's publication. But hang on: isn't there the largest round of local elections in the four-year cycle only six weeks later? With purdah before the elections and fresh issues no doubt thrown up afterwards, perhaps we should get ready for another set of questions which only Sir Michael Lyons can answer and even further delays to his final report.

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