£1bn plans to upgrade region’s transport put at risk

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles
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LABOUR has warned that up to £750m of investment and 20,000 jobs are at risk in Yorkshire as the Government pushes ahead with new laws that could block a massive transport upgrade for the region.

Opposition MPs have slammed the coalition over its decision to force regional transport authorities seeking to raise money for new roads and rail projects via a special levy on council tax bills to put the matter to a local referendum each year.

Labour says the new rule – first announced in the Queen’s Speech in May – will effectively block ambitious plans in West Yorkshire to create a massive 10-year transport fund that would have paid for more than £1bn of transport improvements for the region.

A list of more than 30 major projects across West Yorkshire and York had been drawn up by local council leaders for the coming decade including a raft of station and city centre improvements, new link roads and bypasses in Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield, a bus interchange for York, a new carriageway to Leeds Bradford Airport and an extra 
motorway junction to relieve congestion on the M62.

But the new law means their proposed council tax levy, which had been agreed with Ministers last year, would now have to be put to a local vote by all six different councils in every single year for the next decade – meaning up to 60 referendums being held across West Yorkshire and York. The councils have made clear this is completely impracticable.

Labour frontbenchers expressed their anger as the Local Audit and Accountability Bill cleared its third reading in the Commons. It will become law next month.

“The extension of council tax referendums will cause instability and uncertainty,” said Labour’s shadow local government minister, Andy Sawford.

“The implications in West Yorkshire are that if the referendums were lost, it would put at risk £750 million of investment and 20,000 new jobs. These are very significant consequences.”

Last night council leaders from across West Yorkshire held crunch talks in Whitehall with Cities Minister Greg Clark – but no way forward emerged. City leaders have also written to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg asking him to intervene, as their entire investment plan teeters on the brink.

The proposed West Yorkshire and York transport fund was unveiled by Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Kirklees, Calderdale and York councils last year amidst much fanfare.

Having won agreement for a special transport council tax levy costing residents a few pounds per year from senior Government officials as part of the Leeds city region “City Deal”, council leaders began drawing up the projects they expected to embark upon with the new fund.

Planned improvements included the upgrade of every major railway station in the county, along with a raft of individual city centre road, junction and bus lane improvements. Two new bypasses and two new link roads were to be built in Wakefield, along with one in south-east Bradford, a new carriageway out to the Aire Valley enterprise zone and another to Leeds Bradford Airport.

Speaking in the Commons, Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis insisted the Government still supports the West Yorkshire plan, but said the councils will have to find a way of proceeding without raising local tax levels by more than the two per cent threshold which would trigger a referendum.

“There is no basis for suggesting that these levies would result in authorities being forced to hold referendums,” he said.

“Given the relatively small increases involved, I would urge those authorities to freeze their council tax instead, and take advantage of the grants available to support them in doing so – thus holding down council tax for hard-working people.”