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Last Updated: Friday, 21 July 2006, 15:40 GMT 16:40 UK
'No quick fix' over council tax
By Ollie Stone-Lee
Political reporter, BBC News

Sir Michael Lyons
Sir Michael says he will propose practical changes
Reforms to the council tax could take years to put into place, says the man reviewing the controversial charge for the government.

Sir Michael Lyons was speaking as his inquiry began a series of meetings asking the public about how local services should be funded and run.

There could be no "quick fix" and more than one prime minister might have to deal with the reforms, he warned.

But the quickest way to make changes was to shake up council tax benefit.

Fair?

The public meetings are taking place in nine different council areas over the next fortnight.

Invited members of the public, who are meant to be representative of their communities, will be asked whether they think council tax is fair and who should make decisions on funding local services.

As well as looking at reforming council tax, Sir Michael is also examining the role and responsibilities of local council. He will report on both issues in December.

His team will be asking for views about calls for councils to be more involved in issues such as policing and health.

Sir Michael, who is not attending the meetings himself, said he wanted to improve public understanding of the issues involved.

'No wish lists'

A good example of the tension between what needs to be done at national level and what is done at local level was the controversy over police mergers, Sir Michael told the BBC News website.

Home Secretary John Reid called a halt to plans to merge police forces in England and Wales.

Even proposed voluntary mergers of forces were called off because council taxpayers faced bigger bills to pay for the move, he said.

If you reduce the tax burden on some people you are going to increase it on others
Sir Michael Lyons

Some councillors and local government experts fear Sir Michael will step back from producing radical proposals in favour of plans likely to find approval with ministers.

But the inquiry chief said: "I'm not trimming my sails. From the day I started this exercise I have been really open about my strong feeling that I didn't spend two years working on an exercise that just sits on a shelf."

He insisted he had still made no decisions about how to alter council tax - but looks unlikely to say it should be scrapped completely.

Rather, he said, he wanted to produced "practical" solutions.

"All the wish lists in the world don't help us in a really complex area," he warned.

'Some will pay more'

Sir Michael said some changes might take a number of years to implement - something likely to alarm those struggling to afford council tax rises out of their fixed incomes.

"The quickest way to improve the mix between income and council tax is to improve the council benefits system," he said.

Under current rules, people can only claim the benefit if they have no more than 16,000 in savings.

Sir Michael said reform could be costly, adding: "If you reduce the tax burden on some people you are going to increase it on others."

The public meetings are being held at:

  • Bristol and Nottingham, 21 July

  • Southampton - 24 July

  • Shropshire - 27 July

  • Barnet - 31 July

  • Hartlepool - 1 August

  • Sheffield - 2 August

  • Chelmsford - 3 August

  • Trafford - 9 August



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