New threat to road revolution

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THE reason that local authorities in West Yorkshire and York wanted to permission to impose a transport levy on council tax bills was driven by the very best of intentions.

They know that gridlock on the roads, coupled with a creaking public transport network, that is beset by chronic overcrowding, is putting off some new businesses from investing in the area and creating a new generation of jobs.

As part of a “city deal” signed off by Nick Clegg, they also thought that they had the Government’s blessing – Ministers had indicated their willingness for the additional revenue to be ring-fenced and re-invested in a package of road and other improvements worth upwards of £750m.

If only it was this straight-forward.

Unbeknownst to the six councils who had come together under the auspices of the Leeds City Region – Leeds, Wakefield, Kirklees, Calderdale, Bradford and York – there are certain conditions and restrictions that have the potential to put this investment, and an estimated 20,000 new jobs, at risk because some Ministers still appear to be opposed to the coalition’s “localism” agenda for purely dogmatic reasons.

This is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the insistence of Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles that 
the levy will be the subject to the same rules that limit council tax increases to less than two per cent unless voters agree otherwise in a referendum.

Yet, because this decision will affect the joint strategy of six town halls, it will mean that each authority will be compelled to put the transport budget to a public vote and win unanimous approval from taxpayers.

It does not end here. There is every likelihood that this costly and time-consuming process will have to be repeated every year for a decade – the length of time that it will take to bring the region’s roads up to standard. In short, it means the possibility of 60 referendum votes at the public expense as well as the uncertainty that any election result brings.

In some respects, it is laudable that Ministers want local authorities to be subjected to greater accountability.

Without these checks and balances, councils would have continued increasing spending and not sought the efficiencies that they have made.

Yet this does not answer the transport conundrum – one which will become even harder to reconcile if this one-off opportunity is allowed to become stuck in 
a political cul-de-sac.

Payday challenge

WHILE David Cameron was justified in drawing attention this week to the fact that 1.2 million more people are in work than when the coalition came to power, many are yet to see tangible benefits of this burgeoning economic recovery.

Part of the reason is that those who are in employment often find themselves having to contend with wages that fail to keep pace with the cost of living.

This disparity is felt even more keenly at this time of year, when the cost of Christmas places extra pressure on those low-paid workers already struggling to make ends meet.

Against such a context, the intervention of the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds over the issue of payday lenders is welcome in that it proves the Church has not lost sight of the difficulties facing many during what is the highlight of the Christian calendar.

Writing in this newspaper today, the Right Reverend John Packer calls for a cap on the interest rates that can be charged in order to offer greater protection for those who feel they have no option but to take out such loans.

While George Osborne’s announcement last month of a legal limit on the 
overall cost of payday 
loans was welcome, the Bishop is right to insist 
that much more can, and must, be done.

One of the key questions, for instance, is why individuals turn to payday lenders in the first place – the spiralling cost of living, with utility bills an important element, being one of the most obvious answers. It is that challenge which the Government now needs to confront.

Bradford’s boost

EVEN though the build-up to Christmas has been dominated by the closure of shop chains in recent years, Bradford can, at the very least, look to the future with confidence as work finally resumes on the city’s new shopping centre which had to be mothballed nearly six years ago when the financial crisis took hold.

It left a giant “hole” in the heart of the city that not only became a national symbol of the recession, but a daily reminder about Bradford’s plight in comparison to other Northern cities that have been able to advance regeneration plans and, in Hull’s instance, win the race to become the 2017 City of Culture.

In many respects, Bradford now needs to take its lead from Hull as developer Westfield presses ahead with the shopping scheme that will be anchored by Debenhams and Marks & Spencer. The construction of the St Stephen’s centre in Hull became a catalyst for wider change and a similar opportunity now exists in Bradford, even more so if workers for the majority of the 1,500 construction jobs and 2,500 shop staff are recruited from within the West Yorkshire city.