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Sir Michael is uniquely placed to argue for change...
Sir Michael is uniquely placed to argue for change

By Richard Vize, editor

After the months of shadow boxing, Sir Michael Lyons used a reception in Parliament last week to bury any expectation he will recommend new powers for local government.

Last week this leader called for Sir Michael to be bold. He replied: 'My response to 'be bold' is go and have a chat with Peter Burt.'

But we only asked for bold, not barmy. The opprobrium dumped all over Sir Peter and his plans for local taxation in Scotland only proves that coupling bold with irrational, inequitable and ill-considered is a recipe for political disaster.

Whatever other criticisms may be levelled at Sir Michael's report when he finally completes it next spring, such shortcomings are most unlikely to be among them.

It is particularly disappointing to see Sir Michael throw in the towel on powers when the framework he established for his work was so promising.

As we recognised last week, the great obstacle to substantial reform is lack of public support. Sir Michael's early hopes of engaging the public in debate have not been realised, for which the government should take responsibility.

But from the beginning the Lyons team focused on meeting the needs of the communities being served, not on the institution of local government. Did that formulation not offer an opportunity for boldness?

Surely an independent report for government should, to a manageable degree, challenge and develop existing ministerial thinking. Stern, Eddington and Barker certainly thought so. If not, why bother commissioning an outsider instead of a civil servant?

Multiple strands of political debate and social change, from the failures of centralism to the decline in democratic engagement to the need for a sense of community in a globalised world, argue for more devolution to the locality.

But this rare opportunity for change will be missed unless those who are in a position of influence have the courage to move the debate.

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