You may have read the Observer’s comments on ‘Two speed Britain at the weekend – about how London is surging ahead in an economic recovery which is leaving the rest of the UK behind.
It’s not an encouraging story.
But things don’t have to be this way.
Ed Cox, director of the thinktank IPPR North, has underlined the need to rekindle growth outside the capital. Lord Hezeltine has called for the same. And both Ed Cox and Lord Hezeltine see the way forward as locally-controlled investment. Heseltine, for instance, has called for money to be handed to the Local Enterprise Partnerships – themselves an integral part of the ‘City Deals’, which places like Leeds negotiated with the Government last year. As both Cox and Heseltine agree, cities like Leeds need a ‘degree of capacity’, i.e. the funding, to make regional growth a reality. And regional growth is essential to UK growth in general, especially to a rebalanced economy that isn’t over-reliant on financial services.
But last week’s Queen’s Speech made it clear that this Tory/LibDem coalition is not listening.
It’s easy to miss the implications of everything in that speech. But it included proposals which will stop Local Transport Authorities increasing their levy on council tax bills without a referendum.
That impacts directly on regional growth, because what it means in practice, is that the City Deal is now to be subject to this second stage of local referendum – with all the delay, uncertainty, and cost that means.
The Deal was negotiated by the elected local Council – in the interests of the economic growth and future of Leeds and the region.
It’s to be stymied by a cheap populist stunt by Pickles.
One of the aims of the City Deal was to invest in essential transport infrastructure.
‘The transport infrastructure of Leeds City Region – and indeed of the North of England as a whole – has suffered from long-term under-investment and over- centralised decision-making. Business sees the transport system as a constraint to growth.’
The aim was ‘ to shrink distances both within the Leeds City Region and between Leeds City Region and other city regions through faster and more reliable journey times. This will effectively create a single cross-Pennine economic zone with a combined Leeds City Region/Greater Manchester workforce of 2.5m and a £100bn economy (one tenth of national output).’
An ambitious vision.
The ‘problem’ is that this is done through bodies like the Transport Authority and Passenger Transport Executives – bodies of which the Council is a major part.
Enter Mr. Pickles, who has decided to label these bodies as ‘quangos’ – and to stop them taking money from Council funds without a referendum.
This is a decision completely at odds with the City Deal – and the whole localism strategy.
As Keith Wakefield has put it
“Once again we have Eric Pickles applying the sledgehammer, and the effect is to stop authorities like the Leeds City Region being bold and ambitious. This will be a very destructive blow to our transport plans.
“We will seek a meeting with him and his officials to remind him of what the City Deal does. It talks about giving us the freedom so that we can be ambitious.
“This will seriously undermine the entire City Deal proposal.”
This Government is always telling us they see “localism” as the key. The City Deals were supposed to be an expression of localism.
Keith Wakefield again – “We were told we had new freedom. Are we now saying that a Government commitment made less than a year ago no longer applies?”
Shadow Communities Secretary Hilary Benn, MP for Leeds Central, sees the absurdity of it all –
“It’s ridiculous that one bit of Government doesn’t know what the other has agreed. It was always part of the City Deal that the transport authority would increase its levy to fund big improvements in transport infrastructure. Now the whole thing is being undermined by Eric Pickles.
We should be supporting councils showing leadership by spending money on better transport, and not on endless referendums.”
So just what do the Tory/LibDems mean by localism?
Obviously not allowing Councils and other local bodies to get on with the things they were elected to do.
Is your Local Council a quango?
Or is it the part of government closest to you, most easily accessible, most easy to influence?
Where do you think the knowledge about Leeds and its economic needs lies – in Leeds itself? Or with Mr Pickles, sitting in his office at Westminster?
And the bigger picture – well, that’s just depressingly familiar.
Leeds and the North in general will see their efforts to grow stymied, again. And by a Coalition government whose commitment to anyone beyond their friends in the City is questionable.