IF the Government was asked to write a £1bn cheque for transport improvements across West Yorkshire and York, it simply would not happen – Whitehall’s record of investment in the region is notoriously poor, even without the austerity drive.
If the six councils concerned were asked to allocate £1bn towards a package of road, rail and bus schemes, the outcome would be the same – town hall budgets are now so tight that there is no room for financial manoeuvre.
This explains why the £1bn transport fund for West Yorkshire’s five councils, plus York, is crucial to improving road and rail links which are already stretched to breaking point because of decades of under-investment.
Using an imaginative combination of government grants, new powers to borrow and a small precept on council tax bills over the next decade, money will be generated to fund a list of schemes that might never happen otherwise – projects like a new bus station in York, a new access road to Leeds Bradford International Airport and bypasses at Wakefield, Pontefract and Castleford. The benefits will not just be felt in the areas listed.
The whole region will benefit from improved transport access to these locations.
But they will not happen if Eric Pickles, the obstructive Communities and Local Government Secretary, insists on referendum votes being held by each council, and for each year of the decade-long scheme, to determine whether the special levy on council tax bills can be imposed. I
n short, this raises the spectre of the project, backed by democratically-elected councillors and Ministers, having to win public backing in 60 referendum votes – a total non-starter.
This was never the intention of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg when he instigated the laudable City Deal scheme – the whole idea was to give elected local councils a greater say over issues such as infrastructure – and the Lib Dem leader’s commitment is welcome. Mr Clegg believes he has found a solution which satisfies the wishes of West Yorkshire and York – and also his Cabinet colleague who does, understandably, wants to keep council tax bills in check.
Yet the reality is that the levy on bills will be just a few pounds a year, and is a small price to pay if Yorkshire’s fragile transport network is to withstand with increased demand from road, rail and bus users alike.
Rural councils still short-changed
TWO now familiar arguments are aired when Ministers sign off the local government spending settlement – rural councils claim that funding is skewed in favour of urban areas and vice-versa, and then the debate about whether the decision-making basis is politically biased or not.
Yet David Cameron’s government has succeeded to offend town and country alike. This is unsurprising in one regard – councils were always going to be resistant to the spending squeeze after enjoying record funding under Labour. But it is surprising after the coalition made a political virtue out of its promise to provide fairer levels of funding for rural areas.
The consequence? An extra £8.5m being allocated to town halls in the country’s rural heartlands, with one council – according to Thirsk and Malton MP Anne McIntosh – receiving as little as £650 for the next financial year.
It is comparable to the equally short-sighted decision by Whitehall’s bureaucrats to give just £915 to North Yorkshire’s councils to repair damage to the region’s roads in the floods of 2012 which amounted to £2m.
These decisions smack of gesture politics when Tory politicians, including Mr Cameron, were arguing before the 2010 election that rural areas were being short-changed because Whitehall does not recognise the increased cost of providing key services in countryside communities.
Of course residents of North Yorkshire, England’s most rural council, will sympathise with the Prime Minister over the record budget deficit that he had the misfortune to inherit – but they do have a right to ask questions when promises are not honoured.
Dignity of right-to-die campaigner
THERE are, quite rightly, serious reservations over calls to allow people the right to die. Yet the words of Paul Lamb in this newspaper will give even the staunchest of opponents pause for thought.
Mr Lamb, from Leeds, was paralysed in a road crash and has spent nearly a quarter of a century in pain. He quickly explodes several myths: he loves life and doesn’t want to die – at least not yet – and is certainly not looking for sympathy.
What he does seek, however, is an assurance that when the pain becomes too much to bear he will not be reduced to begging medical staff to put him out of his misery.
There are any number of concerns that would need to be addressed before changing the law in such a way that would give individuals like Mr Lamb the authority to choose the time of their death. And it is imperative that reform of this sort comes from Parliament, not the law courts.
Nevertheless, it would be a hard heart that remained unmoved by Mr Lamb’s appeal for compassion or did not feel some empathy for the argument he presents.