RESIDENTS in some of Yorkshire’s largest cities could face a referendum over plans to pay for a new £1bn transport fund through a levy on council tax bills under measures unveiled in the Queen’s Speech.
The Government is on a collision course with Labour council leaders in Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Kirklees, Calderdale and York after announcing new ‘localism’ laws – which state that any large council tax rise must be put to a public vote – will be extended to cover taxes levied by local transport authorities.
Number 10 said the measure would prevent “unelected local quangos” from imposing “excessive council tax rises” without the consent of local people.
But furious transport bosses in West Yorkshire accused Communities Secretary Eric Pickles of seeking to “hamper” their much-vaunted £1bn transport fund, designed to pay for a raft of new transport projects over the next decade.
The six councils now face the agonising choice of dramatically scaling back their ambitious plans for transport investment in the region, or embarking on a gruelling campaign to try to convince people to vote in favour of raising their own taxes.
Labour councillor James Lewis, chairman of West Yorkshire transport body Metro, said: “This proposal cuts right across the Government’s declared support for the introduction of local transport funds, and shows what disarray this Government’s policy is in.
“The Bill reads as if it has been deliberately designed to hamper the introduction of a West Yorkshire Transport Fund.
“If Mr Pickles considers measures that will underpin the creation of over 20,000 new jobs in West Yorkshire while costing residents from just 1.5p per week as ‘excessive’, it shows what a poor grasp of economics he has.”
The measure will be included in the forthcoming Local Audit and Accountability Bill, one of 19 pieces of legislation unveiled by the Queen at yesterday’s State Opening of Parliament.
As expected, the Queen’s Speech centred on a new Immigration Bill, curbing the rights of immigrants to access healthcare, benefits and housing, and two Bills paving the way for the new £33bn high-speed rail link between Yorkshire and the capital.
There were also two Bills to support business – one cutting red tape, the other delivering the Budget pledge to cut National Insurance contributions for every firm – and a Health and Social Care Bill to cap the amount people have to spend on care costs.
The Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh and, for the first time, by both Prince Charles and Camilla, told MPs and peers the Government’s would “continue to focus on building a stronger economy, so that the United Kingdom can compete and succeed in the world”.
“It will also work to promote a fairer society that rewards people who work hard,” she said.
Speaking later in the Commons, as the new Parliamentary session got under way, David Cameron said the programme would support hard-working people and help boost economic growth.
“This is a Queen’s Speech that will back aspiration and those who want to get on,” the Prime Minister said. “This is a Queen’s Speech that will make our country competitive once again.”
But the agenda was dismissed by Ed Miliband as a “no-answers Queen’s Speech, from a tired and failing Government”.
Joking that Tories “used to call [Ukip] clowns, but now they want to join the circus”, the Labour leader said Mr Cameron is unable to provide the direction the country needs because he is preoccupied by Tory backbenchers “obsessing” over Europe and the growing threat from Ukip.