The pantomime season at PMQs

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If David Blunkett wants to better understand the public’s cynicism towards politicians, he might be advised to offer a critique of Prime Minister’s Questions rather than apportion blame on mocking comedians.

Yesterday’s session did not reflect well on Tory backbenchers. They became impatient when Ed Miliband questioned David Cameron about the Syria crisis – perhaps the greatest scar on the world’s conscience at present – and jeered loudly when the Labour leader finally “welcomed” the second biggest fall in unemployment on record.

Nor was the latest instalment of this weekly ritual Labour’s finest hour. Neither Mr Miliband nor Ed Balls, the arm-waving Shadow Chancellor, recognised their culpability over the recession and the cost of living crisis that they’re now trying to exploit.

Is it any wonder that politicians are held in such low esteem when this pointless Punch and Judy pantomime drowns out any attempt to forge a consensus on the great global and domestic issues of the day?

This isn’t the fault of the entertainment industry, the conclusion of Mr Blunkett, but the politicians who appear to regard PMQs as some kind of blood sport.

For their benefit, here are some facts. Despite the International Montetary Fund revising its UK growth forecast upwards, there are still 2.3 million people out of work – 7.1 per cent of the workforce.

Though this does increase the likelihood of a rise in interest rates this year 
which will be welcomed by savers, it will not help those families whose incomes remain squeezed – further evidence of the economy’s fragility.

The 167,000 fall in the number of people out of work was at its most pronounced in the South. In Yorkshire, the unemployment level fell by just 8,000 – while it actually increased in the North East. This suggests that the recovery is being London-led, and that the property market’s resurgence is not risk-free.

The fall in the headline figure also masks the fact that many new jobs are either part-time or involve people signing up to zero-hour contracts.

Mr Cameron did concede that this is not a time for complacency, but the tone 
of his remarks – and tactless decision to compare Mr Miliband to an arsonist – lacked humility and statesmanlike qualities.

After all, unemployment or the spectre of redundancy is no laughing matter for those whose lives and prospects have been blighted by the downturn and the decisions taken at Westminster.

Council challenge

IF the Government is to be believed, local authorities are in charge of their own destiny because it is councillors who determine spending priorities.

Yet, while there is a semblance of truth to this assertion, the reality is that decisions are dictated by the amount of money that Whitehall makes available to councils through annual grants or an increasingly complex set of mechanisms where local authorities have to compete for special funding. These grants account for around three-quarters of annual budgets.

This dependency on Whitehall is slowly changing – councils can now keep the business rates paid by new firms and the advent of a city-region approach to transport, skills and infrastructure spending does give local councils leverage to set their own agenda.

Yet, if the Government is truly committed to localism and the devolution agenda being pursued by Lord Heseltine, it will go further and consider whether councils should have greater powers to determine spending – York Council’s call for a Royal Commission includes a plan for town halls to keep the proceeds of all business rates.

As well as having the potential to incentivise 
local authorities to advance plans that will help aspirational individuals to create new firms, it will also provide a clearer correlation between the payment of council tax bills and the quality of services received in return. If this link is strengthened, it may halt the public’s apathy towards politics. As such, York Council’s approach should be viewed as a concerted attempt to revive local democracy.

York’s vision

THE ambition of Visit York is laudable – it wants to turn tourism into a £1bn a year industry in the historic city by attracting even more visitors over the coming decade. It intends to achieve this by nurturing a closer relationship between various local agencies.

The timing also coincided with York Racecourse making available free tickets, from this morning, for cycling enthusiasts who want to gain access to the Knavesmire to watch the beginning of the Tour de France’s second stage on July 6 – this already promises to be another defining moment in the city’s rich history.

However it was noteworthy that Visit York’s launch material made no reference to the work of Welcome to Yorkshire, the body which had the foresight to bring the Tour to these parts. And that is the point. Tourism policy should not be about individual cities and locations working in isolation – they all need to pull together to ensure that tourists visit as many destinations and attractions as possible.

As such, it’s not just about York, but God’s own county in its entirety.