FURIOUS council leaders from across Yorkshire will seek an urgent meeting with Eric Pickles to spell out their concern over his “sledgehammer” move to prevent a massive programme of local transport investment without a local referendum.
Leeds City Council leader Keith Wakefield said proposals set out in the Queen’s Speech this week to prevent local transport authorities from significantly increasing their levy on council tax bills without a public vote represent a “destructive” blow to West Yorkshire and York’s much-vaunted £1bn transport fund.
Coun Wakefield and his counterparts in Bradford, Wakefield, Kirklees, Calderdale and York signed an historic agreement with Whitehall last summer – known as a City Deal – which gave them the power to raise an extra levy on people’s council tax bills to create a new region-wide £1bn transport investment fund.
Last month a 30-strong programme of projects was unveiled for the coming decade including new roads, railway stations, trolleybus lines and cycle lanes.
But the proposed Local Audit and Accountability Bill, announced by the Queen on Wednesday, will include a measure to force local bodies such as West Yorkshire transport authority Metro to put any large increase in council tax levies to a local referendum.
It follows a fiery speech by Communities Secretary Mr Pickles in January when he attacked the “secret state” of “local quangos” which he said were costing taxpayers money without any real accountability.
Council leaders in Yorkshire say organising a referendum across the whole of West Yorkshire and York would be time-consuming and hugely expensive. They would also face a battle to convince the public to get out and vote for a plan to increase their own council tax.
“Once again we have Eric Pickles applying the sledgehammer, and the effect is to stop authorities like the Leeds City Region being bold and ambitious,” Coun Wakefield said. “This will be a very destructive blow to our transport plans.
“We will seek a meeting with him and his officials to remind him of what the City Deal does. It talks about giving us the freedom so that we can be ambitious.
“This will seriously undermine the entire City Deal proposal.”
Since coming to power in 2010, the Government has repeatedly claimed that “localism” is central to its long-term strategy. The City Deals – which handed new powers and funding to the largest towns and cities across England – were a central plank of that approach.
“We were told we had new freedom,” Coun Wakefield said. “Are we now saying that a Government commitment made less than a year ago no longer applies?”
Coun Wakefield said the dismal turn-out for recent votes such as the Mayoral referendums and the police commissioner elections showed people were “fed up” with referendums.
“They elect us to show leadership and ambition, and that is what we are trying to do,” he said.
Labour has also reacted furiously to the proposal, calling on Mr Pickles to “support” ambitious councils. Shadow Communities Secretary Hilary Benn, MP for Leeds Central, suggested his Tory opponent’s plan revealed a lack of joined-up thinking in Whitehall.
“It’s ridiculous that one bit of Government doesn’t know what the other has agreed,” he said.
“It was always part of the City Deal that the transport authority would increase its levy to fund big improvements in transport infrastructure. Now the whole thing is being undermined by Eric Pickles.
“We should be supporting councils showing leadership by spending money on better transport, and not on endless referendums.”
Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis said: “The Passenger Transport Executives are unelected bodies. If quangos want to hike up council tax, they should get the consent of local taxpayers.”