The YP comment (August 15): Buck-passing or people power?

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FOR all intents and purposes, the financial challenges are Kirklees Council are emblematic of the challenges confronting most town halls.

Painful decisions need to be taken about the future of key services as the coalition injects some financial realism into local government following New Labour’s profligacy.

What will surprise some, however, is that the West Yorkshire authority might now become the first in the region to stage a referendum so it can seek a mandate from residents to increase the area’s council tax by more than two per cent, the threshold set by the Government in order to help keep bills in check. Some will say that taxpayers should be involved in this process as part of David Cameron’s localism agenda while others will contend that Kirklees Council is passing the buck.

The recent political history and electoral arithmetic of Kirklees certainly does not help. No single party has enjoyed overall control since 1999, making it harder for tough decisions to be taken. Yet senior executives and councillors are still paid to provide leadership and it would not be the greatest of electoral surprises if any referendum result backfired.

Effectively, the council would be asking residents – including those whose wages have not kept pace with the cost of living – to dig even deeper into their pockets as Kirklees comes to terms with a £70m budget deficit, a state of affairs that could necessitate the widespread closure of local libraries. Frankly, this is about as likely as the proverbial turkeys voting for Christmas.

As such, Kirklees Council needs to explore all options – including, for example, merging back-off functions with other authorities – before putting voters in an invidious position. Failing that, residents can give their own budget verdict at the next set of local elections, and at no extra cost to the public purse.

In the driving seat

PUBLIC disquiet with train companies is not just a reflection of complacent operators like Northern Rail who take their travellers for granted; it is also indicative of the continuing failure of industry regulators and Ministers to act on the complaints of passengers.

Few commuters in these parts will be surprised that Northern Rail has been named and shamed by the Passenger Focus watchdog. After under-estimating demand for services on the Tour de France weekend, it now announces – abruptly – that off-peak fares will not be eligible on rush-hour services each evening.

It is little wonder that so many travellers have concluded that train companies are no longer “on their side”. Put simply, passengers are being expected to pay more for the privilege of enduring a standard of service that has not kept pace with demand – or expectations – and Northern will inevitably antagonise this ill-feeling still further when it starts to penalise those people who fall foul of these new restrictions.

Such operators need to remember that they’re in the business of providing a public service, and the time has come for the Government – and regulators – to implement a far stricter set of customer targets when a new franchise is awarded for this region in 2016.

It’s not all bad news; the quality of Grand Central’s service has been singled out for praise. If this firm can win the respect of its customers because of its honesty, there is no excuse for serial under-performers like Northern Rail not to rise to the challenge and simply being open with passengers when there are delays and mishaps. It’s not too much to ask, is it?

Football failures

It does not take a mathematical genius to realise that England is not very good at football, the sport that this country gave to the world. What is surprising, however, is the left-field conclusion of the Adam Smith Institute which has investigated this malaise ahead of the new Premier League campaign and concluded that the influx of foreign-born players is not to blame for this embarrassing situation.

Without the skill and guile of such stars, England, says the think-tank, would perform even more dismally on the world stage. What can be done? While Football Association boss Greg Dyke believes overseas players are the root of the problem and wants quotas, perhaps the reason is the quality of coaching at a junior level and a tendency for emerging talents to believe the hype. After all, most of the countries that prospered in the recent World Cup – Germany included – did so on the back of players who have blossomed in this country. How ironic.