A NEW levy on council tax bills for residents across much of Yorkshire could be combined with up to £25m a year in devolved Whitehall funding to pay for a massive investment programme in the region’s creaking transport networks.
Council bosses at Leeds City Region, the body which spans 11 of Yorkshire’s local authority areas including Bradford, Wakefield, York, Barnsley and Kirklees as well as Leeds, are “optimistic” a major deal with the Government will be signed within weeks to help transform transport systems across the North for the next generation.
A formal bid document submitted to Whitehall by West Yorkshire transport authority Metro suggests that under the so-called City Deal proposal, the Leeds City Region “could access £20 to £25 million of devolved funding per annum for 2015 onwards” to spend on local transport projects.
Previously any scheme costing more than £5m has been subject to strict controls by the Department for Transport (DfT).
Leaders want this devolved money to form one part of a wider funding pot as councils join forces to raise the £1bn they believe is required to spark a step change in local transport.
Leeds City Council leader Keith Wakefield said a “small levy” on council tax bills could be introduced across the city region to fund the investment programme.
“We are only talking about a few pounds on bills, but over 10 years it adds up to £1bn,” he said.
Raising the controversial prospect of a levy on council tax bills may seem a bold move with little more than a fortnight to go before local elections, but Coun Wakefield made it clear he believes the thousands of jobs and sizeable economic benefits a major transport upgrade would bring are worth any political risk.
“If we can demonstrate we are creating a modern transport system in the North of England that makes journeys between cities like Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield and York that much quicker, I think people would be happy to pay – as long as they know the money would be spent on that,” he said.
Much of the money would likely be spent on improving local rail networks, both on commuter routes and between major cities.
Crucial to this regional vision will be the success of a combined bid by councils across the North of England to take control of the Northern and TransPennine rail lines from the DfT before the long-term contracts with the local train operating companies come up for renewal in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
Leeds City Region is working with counterparts in Sheffield and Manchester on a joint bid to be allowed to let and manage the new contracts and so ensure train companies deliver the much-improved services required, funded in part by the extra investment the new £1bn transport fund could provide.
The Government has rushed forward its consultation on rail devolution in the hope of having new systems in place in time for the renewal of the Northern contract next summer but there is no guarantee the deal will be struck in time.
“The timescale is frighteningly tight,” Coun Wakefield said. “But everybody within the local transport system is geared up to try and do it within this timescale.
“To take control of the contract after it has been let would seem to be a little bit to be doing it after the horse has already bolted.”
Securing the transport funding from Whitehall appears more certain, with Coun Wakefield “optimistic” an agreement will be reached within weeks to deliver the £25m a year of devolved funds to Leeds City Region.
Mehboob Kahn, leader of Kirklees Council and chairman of Leeds City Region leaders board, hopes that deal is only the start.
“The hope is that all the DfT’s spend on infrastructure in the next Government spending period will eventually be devolved across the country,” he said.