WHEN five West Yorkshire councils won the right last year to set up a £1bn fund for transport improvements, it was hailed as the solution to the congestion that for years has blighted the county’s roads.
Here at last was the chance of substantial investment in a region whose transport needs had long been neglected, an opportunity to plot West Yorkshire’s economic recovery by those with first-hand understanding of what the problems were.
It seems now, however, that such an opportunity may never come. Because the fund was to be raised through council tax, the entire project will have to be put to a referendum under measures announced in this week’s Queen’s Speech.
West Yorkshire’s councils, of course, should not run scared of public opinion. After all, the argument for transport improvements is so strong that local politicians really should have no problem in making an eloquent case to their electorate for a modest increase in council tax.
Nevertheless, there remains an inherent contradiction here in the Government’s approach. On the one hand, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles says that powers should be devolved to local level whenever possible. Yet, on the other, he dictates from Westminster on precisely when and where local referendums are to be held and decides exactly what constitutes an “excessive” council tax rise.
The notion of local accountability is all very well, but it is expensive and impractical to put every tax increase to a local vote. If every major tax-and-spend decision contained in George Osborne’s Budget was put out to referendum, the business of government would become impossible.
In the end, faith has to be placed in the notion that councillors are elected to make decisions and, if the public is unhappy with the result, they can vote them out at the next election.