YP opinion: Labour turmoil over HS2 plans

IF Ed Balls wants to know why his anti-HS2 stance has the potential to be so damaging to the future of transport policy in Britain, he only needs to seek the counsel of the Labour leader of his local council in West Yorkshire.

For, while the Shadow Chancellor was, again, pouring scorn on the Government’s latest business case in favour of high-speed rail, Keith Wakefield – the Leeds Council boss – was signing off a letter which rebuked the confrontational position being taken by Mr Balls.

The schism between Labour’s national and local leadership could not be greater. While the Shadow Cabinet await Wakefield MP Mary Creagh’s review of HS2 before deciding whether to withdraw their support, ostensibly because of concerns about the final cost, the leaders of the Core Cities Group were venting their frustration at the apparent breakdown of the political consensus between the main parties at Westminster.

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The significance of this intervention should not be under-estimated. Of the eight major English cities who are part of this alliance, seven – including Sheffield – are Labour-led. The only exception is Bristol which chose an independent a year ago to become the city’s first directly-elected mayor.

As such, the question is this: if Mr Balls believes that he is right, why is his view not shared by the leaders of Labour’s flagship councils who are now lobbying Ms Creagh so intently?

The reason appears to be this: the Labour front bench appears intent on maximising David Cameron’s own difficulties rather than working together in the national interest to ensure that HS2 is built on time, on budget and to the benefit of as many communities as possible.

Perhaps the best way forward is for the likes of Coun Wakefield, and his Sheffield counterpart Julie Dore, to bypass their front bench and work with Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin on not only advancing high-speed rail, but looking at how the extra capacity on the rail network can be best served by those cities – like Hull, Wakefield and Bradford – which will not have direct access to HS2. They would be providing the “consensus politics” that Ed Balls promised his party as recently as September 2012 before he applied the brakes.

Voice of victims to be finally heard

THE introduction of the new Victims’ Code should mark a watershed for all those who have argued that the scales of justice in this country are tipped firmly in favour of criminals.

After all, it is more than 16 years since Tony Blair promised on the eve of the 1997 election to be a staunch defender of victims’ rights, and seven years since the Queen’s Speech of November 2006 when his government promised new legislation to “put victims at the heart of the criminal justice system”.

Because it has taken nearly two decades for Mr Blair’s original words to be put into action, in part because his ministers were not sufficiently sincere about their intentions, it is understandable that the new blueprint received a lukewarm response.

Of course victims should have the right to address a court, at the end of legal proceedings and before sentencing, to explain how the crime in question has damaged their lives – their voices have been silent too long because this process has, until now, placed a premium on a defendant’s mealy-mouthed mitigation, such as their drug addiction.

Yet the challenge now is ensuring that judges take heed of this new requirement – some have totally overlooked victim impact statements in the past – and ensure that the Government’s intentions are respected.

But Ministers need to go further. At a time when bodies like Victim Support are having their funding cut, they need to ensure that the police – and the courts – keep families informed of the progress of their case at all times.

While police officers, solicitors and court clerks may be au fait with the judicial process, the painstakingly slow progress can cause great unease to all those who are unfamiliar with the legal system and jargon – and who feel, rightly, that an even greater injustice is being committed because their anguish has been neglected. As such, the test of the Victims’ Code is whether it finally counters this imbalance or not.

Protecting landscapes for the future

THE Lonely Planet travel guide’s endorsement this week of Yorkshire’s rugged beauty is further vindicated by the decision of the Heritage Lottery Fund to provide £7m to help preserve three precious landscapes for future generations to cherish.

It is a another appreciation of the priceless value of the Yorkshire countryside and it is apt that the Ingleborough Dales conservation scheme features a commitment to train young people in traditional building skills.

Yet the irony is that these welcome endorsements come at a time when it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to visit these unique areas by public transport – the Moorsbus service is the latest victim of spending cuts.

Though every public body is having to take challenging decisions, this decisions does appear to be short-sighted given the ongoing efforts of Welcome to Yorkshire – and others – to promote these enchanting areas to a global audience.