A radical £1bn transport plan to kick-start dozens of major road and rail projects across Yorkshire will still go ahead despite concerns of obstruction from Whitehall, Nick Clegg has pledged.
Speaking to the Yorkshire Post, the Deputy Prime Minister and MP for Sheffield Hallam said he believes he has found a “solution” to prevent the collapse of the West Yorkshire and York transport fund proposed by town hall leaders.
Asked if the scheme will still go ahead, Mr Clegg said: “Yes. I see no reason why it shouldn’t.”
The ambitious transport plan was unveiled in 2012 by the leaders of Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Kirklees, Calderdale and York councils, as part of the Leeds city region’s City Deal devolution agreement with Government.
Under the plans, the six councils will place a small levy on council tax bills of a few pounds a year for the next decade, to help raise a £1bn war chest for overhauling the area’s creaking transport infrastructure.
More than 30 major transport projects have been earmarked including a new link road to Leeds Bradford Airport; a new bus and transport interchange for York; new bypasses for Wakefield, Pontefract and Castleford; a raft of highways improvements across Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees; and a new junction to relieve congestion on the M62.
Leeds City Council leader Keith Wakefield has described the package as the biggest overhaul of local transport in 100 years, estimating it would create 20,000 new jobs.
The ambitious plan was thrown into severe doubt last year, however, when Communities Secretary Eric Pickles announced plans for a new law preventing transport authorities from increasing council tax levels beyond a certain level without holding a local referendum.
Furious council chiefs made a formal complaint to Cities Minister Greg Clark in December, warning that Mr Pickles’s new rule – which will pass into law this month – would mean all six local authorities having to hold and win a local referendum every year for the next decade if their new council tax levy is to be allowed.
But Mr Clegg – who signed off the transport fund himself in 2012 – said he believes that by speeding up the rate at which the Government makes its own contribution to the fund, the need for Yorkshire councils to raise their council tax rates beyond the level permitted can be avoided.
He said money will also be available for the plan via the new £2bn-a-year fund for local areas created by Lord Heseltine.
“These are the areas which Greg Clark has been speaking to city region leaders about,” Mr Clegg said. “I really do think there is a straightforward way we can address the concerns that have been raised, because I am as keen an advocate of successful City Deals as anyone else.
“I think we’ve got a solution for all this, but I accept we need to work with the (council) leaders.”
Mr Clegg stressed there will be no exemption regarding Mr Pickles’s referendum lock, however.
“I don’t think we ever suggested we would amend legislation in Westminster particularly for one city region or another,” he said. “Let us be clear – the Government remains committed to keeping council tax increases to a minimum. That principle is going to stay.
“It is a principle you can’t nip and tuck to suit the individual needs of City Deals – particularly when there are perfectly workable solutions to some of this.”