Keith Wakefield: The North is on track to control its destiny at last

WHEN I look back on 2014, it will be a year full of lasting memories despite the increasing difficulties and challenges of the ongoing austerity measures.

The reason for that is only partly because of the incredible scenes this July. With the Tour de France Grand Départ, Yorkshire came together as one to welcome something truly special, and I’m fairly sure that show of team work and excellence had some part to play in the more recent developments.

What we have seen in the last 10 days is the publication of three major reports which have the potential to make October 2014 a watershed moment in the transformation of the economy of Leeds, the wider city region and the North. I could never have hoped for this when I first came into politics more than 25 years ago.

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It started with a report by the Centre for Cities, calling on the need for rail links between Leeds and Manchester to be vastly improved, and for transport links within our cities to also be much better in order to help people access jobs and opportunities. Businesses need this to realise their full potential.

This was followed by Jim O’Neill’s City Growth Commission report, which recommended Leeds City Region should be considered for devolution on a scale which could fundamentally alter how local government operates.

And yesterday we had Sir David Higgins in Leeds, making clear that this city and the wider region is essential to the success of HS2, and the Government, in response, approved another new high-speed rail link between Leeds and Manchester (HS3) as well as a new strategic transport plan for the North.

Let’s discuss HS2 and HS3 first. We know creating new rail links has its challenges and critics, but in terms of what they can offer in levelling the playing field with the South in economic terms and connectivity they are the biggest chance we have to help the North finally punch its weight.

Fast, efficient and reliable transport for commuters, business and freight is the number one factor which links all our aims for the future economy. When I’m out cycling in and around Leeds, the number one thing people talk to me about is transport – making our roads better for everyone, problems with bus services, getting to and from the airport or our slow and congested trains.

Connectivity only works if it is a help rather than a hindrance to encourage people to look further for jobs, for businesses to look beyond their traditional areas and markets, and for freight to be moved around the country.

Alongside HS2, making east-west journeys much faster with transport at the heart of economic growth is absolutely pivotal to our future.

If the new faster rail link between Leeds and Manchester brings even a 20-minute cut in journey times, we know that will be worth £6.7bn and nearly 30,000 jobs across the whole of the north of England – the differences we are talking about are huge.

On a more personal level, the ability to travel quicker to visit my daughter in Birmingham and my son in Manchester will be very welcome.

For the broader new transport plan to be a success, it will require working across boundaries through the Leeds City Region, linking up towns and surrounding areas to Leeds Station which is the busiest in the north of England and resolving the congestion problems which are holding us back.

The other element of this is devolution, which has been an obsession of mine now for some time. It has been one of the great frustrations of my entire political life that if in Leeds we want to bid for support for a major project or a grant, it has involved going to Whitehall and essentially begging, often having to give the same pitch several times to different government departments. And by the time a decision was made it would often not be what we had asked for.

Jim O’Neill’s report recommends breaking that cycle up in a way which is extraordinary. Currently we get to keep less than five per cent of the business rates and council tax raised in Leeds. The City Growth Commission says we should keep 100 per cent of it, plus have the potential to benefit directly from future growth. Add to that greater freedom over what services we use, the ability to invest in skills, education and innovation as well as more choices on welfare spending, transport and housing and the potential for what could be achieved is immense.

It is without question a landmark report and what we need now from all the party manifestos is a commitment to specific action that each of the political leaders intends to take in the 100 days after the next General Election.

Councillor Keith Wakefield is Leader of Leeds City Council.