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TONY TRAVERS - LYONS DELAY HANDS NEW PRIME MINISTER CHANCE TO BE RADICAL

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After the publication of Eddington, Barker and Leitch, the chancellor has announced a further delay to the Lyons In...
After the publication of Eddington, Barker and Leitch, the chancellor has announced a further delay to the Lyons Inquiry. Given that the latter's evolution was as a carry-forward from the Raynsford balance of funding review and that Sir Michael's inquiry had already been extended for a year, it was inevitable there would be raised eyebrows at a further delay.

Yet both the Eddington and Barker reviews did include significant local government-related proposals. This column last week considered the potential importance of Eddington as a major source of new revenue for councils. The chancellor's very limited 'green' initiatives in last week's pre-Budget report suggest central government is unlikely to push motorists very hard. The only way forward for road pricing will be as a local charge.

Kate Barker's report on the planning system also hit the streets last week. She made a range of proposals that would affect local government and its income. The Barker findings certainly recognised the vital importance of local decision-making in questions concerning the rationing and use of land. The Leitch report on skills, though it did not address local revenue-raising or, to any significant extent, powers, has implications for governance at the local and regional level.

In finalising his own conclusions, Lyons has now been asked to take account of the three published reviews and Ruth Kelly's local government white paper. Cynics will argue this is simply another Whitehall-induced delay. And at one level it is. It is unlikely Sir Michael and his colleagues greeted with joy the news of another delay to their final report. Moreover, another locally relevant review - by Professor John Hills on social housing - is expected to report in the new year.

Given the content of Eddington and Barker, there is a common-sense argument for Lyons to take stock of what their reports imply for councils. There was always a strong justification for the local government white paper being published after (as opposed to before) all the official reviews. The Lyons team this week published a 'questions' paper about 'joining up' the fragmented outputs that now surround them.

In the longer term, if Lyons now reports in mid-spring, the government is unlikely to respond until the mid-to-late autumn of 2007. Such a delay would doubtless suit an incoming prime minister. It might, just, give opportunities for the new occupant of Number 10 to be more radical in the longer-term. However, finance reforms seem unlikely before the next general election.

While Sir Michael Lyons and his colleagues will not have the quiet midwinter rest they must have hoped for, even they will presumably be allowed to break from their work to enjoy at least one day of turkey and trimmings. We will all have to wait until Easter to see if they find any silver coins in their Christmas pudding. What a happy new year.

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