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WHITE PAPER DILUTED

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Scepticism over document's worth as ministers delay release date...
Scepticism over document's worth as ministers delay release date

By Jennifer Sprinks

Ministerial plans for local government reform are unravelling.

Before last month's cabinet reshuffle a white paper was scheduled for June. Now communities and local government secretary Ruth Kelly plans to publish a more diluted statement - akin to a 'green paper' discussion document - around October. This will cover issues such as neighbourhood governance, city

regions and reorganisation of shire councils.

LGC understands a local government bill has been given a slot for publication in February. This will almost

certainly be too soon to incorporate many recommendations from Sir Michael Lyons' inquiry into function and funding. He will hand its conclusions on finance to the government in December.

This would leave little of substance to put in the bill, those close to the process believe.

New Local Government Network director Chris Leslie said: 'I expect it will be a green paper, not a full shebang of local government reforms, just a part of it.

'It all seems slightly odd to have a whole inquiry producing a beautifully well-thought through report delivering after the government's conclusion.

'The really difficult decisions are being confronted by Lyons and that will require a bill. If it is being done to this timetable then government will not have time to react [to Lyons], so I can see we will have a short bill [in February] looking at governance issues, which would need to be followed by another white paper or bill in quick succession.'

Local Government Association chief executive Sir Brian Briscoe said: 'If there is no change to the finance system then the rest of [the document] is not going to be worth the paper it is written on.'

'It is disappointing the white paper has been delayed, but what matters is that the government makes local area agreements work more effectively and that it implements Lyons' recommendations for local government finance.'

However, Sir Michael Lyons said: 'It would be completely unrealistic to think government would immediately react and it is likely that some of the [recommended] changes for finance could not be implemented immediately.

'I would want government to take the time to reflect on them properly.'

The much-vaunted 'double devolution' promised by Ms Kelly's predecessor, David Miliband, shows no sign of

materialising as there is no Whitehall-wide strategy for devolving power.

This autumn's paper is expected to focus on devolution to neighbourhoods and largely bypass the devolution of power to councils.

Sheffield City Council chief executive Sir Robert Kerslake said: 'Local government has got to continue to make its argument about what it brings to the table.

'This is about a focus on place, not just communities, and it is about doing things at the right level in which local government has a key part to play.'

A DCLG spokeswoman said the detail of the white paper could not be confirmed yet, but added: 'The delay reaffirms Ruth Kelly's commitment to ensuring the white paper is a good piece of work and one that has been carefully considered.'

Timeline

September/October 2006 Policy paper expected

December 2006 Lyons Inquiry submits its final report on local government finance

February 2007 Local Government Bill expected

July 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review to deliver new structure for local government finance

July onwards Another white paper or bill?

Likely contents of policy

>>More powers for neighbourhoods

>>Making local area agreements work more effectively through financial agreements

>>New models of governance for cities and city regions, including leadership from elected mayors

>>The role of councillors, including parish councillors and frontline councillors

>>Shire restructuring - voluntary, but possibly with financial incentives.

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