Plans for a new £1 billion fund to transform transport in West Yorkshire have taken a major step forward with the choice of the first schemes to benefit.
The list has been revealed as councils in the area prepare to submit plans to create a new ‘combined authority’ which will manage the fund as part of wider efforts to grow the economy.
Keith Wakefield, leader of Leeds City Council and chairman of the Association of West Yorkshire Authorities, said: “This is good news for people who travel to work and are looking for faster and more efficient connectivity in the region.”
Over the next 12 months, the biggest change in the way decisions are taken in West Yorkshire since the abolition of the area’s county council in 1986 will take place.
West Yorkshire’s five local authorities will join forces to create the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, absorbing Metro, the existing area-wide transport authority, along the way. York will also join but, for complex technical reasons, not as a full member from the outset.
The creation of the new body is motivated by an apparently simple idea, that by working closer together in key areas, the councils can have a far bigger impact in terms of helping the economy to grow and creating jobs.
Its principal task will be to oversee the creation of a £1 billion transport fund and make decisions about how and where the money is spent. This pot of cash alone is expected to help create 20,000 jobs.
It will also have legal responsibility for funds worth an estimated £400 million to invest in other projects that can help the economy.
The combined authority has been branded by some as a “super council” as a shorthand way of trying to explain its role.
But that is a description shunned by its architects painfully aware that there is no mood among the public for any for anything that smacks of red tape and paper-pushing.
“I think its safe to say nobody wants more bureaucracy or another tier of government. We are very conscious of that and we don’t intend to create that,” says Peter Box, the leader of Wakefield Council and widely tipped to be the authority’s first chairman.
“This is existing local authorities, senior politicians, coming together and asking what are the areas where we can work together to make a difference.
“People are not interested in structures, people are interested in the West Yorkshire councils working smarter and better together. We are going to share resources and we are really going to focus on transport, that’s the number one priority for many people.
“People in the end will judge us on whether we have made a difference, whether there is a better transport system, whether we will create jobs. If we can deliver that people will say its a good idea.”
Co-operating for the benefit of all sounds like a straight forward idea. Indeed, the combined authority is the latest step along a path already established through other bodies such as the Leeds City Region.
But longtime observers of West Yorkshire politics point out that the areas’s history has been characterised as much by competition as co-operation.
It is said in times past that political leaders have barely been on speaking terms let alone been able to take weighty decisions together.
However, the mood music from the current generation is that those days are in the past. Coun Box says there are “excellent personal relationships” between the key figures.
This will be tested in the months ahead as councillors on the authority are asked to support money going to projects in other districts when their gut instinct is to fight tooth and nail for their own part of the world.
“Each district has different problems.We have to make sure we all understand each others problems and then we will have to prioritise what is most important for West Yorkshire as a whole to make sure we are putting the whole of West Yorkshire and York first rather than our own authorities,” says Coun Box.
“Sometimes it may mean schemes dear to individual hearts will not get done. That’s the truth and if we don’t accept that we may as well carry on in the same old way.”
It is likely to help at the outset that the five West Yorkshire council leaders and their York counterpart all lead Labour-run authorities.
But there’s an understanding that will change in the future and that has helped decide how the authority is made up.
While all the council leaders will sit on the authority, they will also be joined by three senior opposition group figures. At one level this is designed to make sure all points of view are heard.
But it is also intended to ensure that all political parties have an interest in the authority from the outset so that it is more likely to stay on a steady path when the voters decide to change who runs their local council.
In fact, in the months leading up to the combined authority’s creation there has been a remarkable consensus behind it.
However, in recent weeks as each council has had its final say on the authority plan before it is sent to the Government for approval, the cracks have started to show.
In York, the Conservatives voted against the idea and the Liberal Democrats abstained. Last week, the Conservatives in Bradford said
they too had concerns.
One source of worry centres on where the £1bn transport fund will get its money from.
Part will come from the Government handing over money it would normally spend in West Yorkshire for the authority to soend instead.
But the rest will come be raised locally. In the case of Leeds, that will mean a contribution of just over £1 million next year rising to £15.4 million by 2022.
Discusssions are ongoing with the Government about whether the authority will charge council tax payers directly through a precept in the same way as the police and fire service or whether it will gather the money from local authorities who pass on the cost through their part of the bill.
Either way, council tax payers will fund a significant share of the transport fund.
But its supporters are quick to say that when it is boiled down to what individuals pay the sums are relatively small. When the Combined Authority launches next year, the amount it collects for the transport fund will amount to £1.63 per person in West Yorkshire and York.
And the hope is that as improvements in the transport system feed through, that is seen as good value for money.
Andrew Carter, leader of the Conservatives on Leeds City Council, thinks arguing about these details should not get in the way of the bigger prize.
“It is important that everyone grasps that the economy of the Leeds City Region works across local government boundaries, the transport infrastructure works across local government boundaries. It makes absolute sense therefore to have a combined authority dealing with specific cross boundary issues at a strategic level.
“If we can manage to achieve this as they have in Greater Manchester it will bring significant strategic infrastructure funding to our region.
“If local authorities can prove they can work strategically together to improve transport – buses, trains the road network – and we can work together on economic issues that bring jobs to the area there is a massive opportunity to get the Government to devolve powers down to a more local level.
“Of course there will be differences of view but this is not the time for that, this is the time to accept the principle.”
Coun Carter’s suggestion that in future the Combined Authority could have wider powers is a hope shared by many of those involved.
There’s a strongly held belief that if the Government put control over much more of the billions it spends in Yorkshire into local hands it would leader to better results and more value for money.
An early indication of the ambitions for the new body are plans being developed to work with other parts of the North to take control of the current northern and transpennine rail services. Something that could happen in the next two to three years.
In the shorter term, if the Combined Authority is to have the kind of impact it hopes for, it will need the help and support of business which is instinctively suspicious of . The early signs are positive.
Mark Goldstone, from the Leeds, York and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, says the Combined Authority should give the Government confidence the money it hands over will be spent effectively.
“By replacing transport only institutions with an organisation which will take a more holistic view of the region’s economy we would hope to see a more joined up approach, connecting people with jobs and businesses to markets more efficiently.”
However, he adds a warming. “As a cautionary note, companies would not want to see the creation of another layer of bureaucracy to be negotiated with.
“The Combined Authority has to focus on delivery of the Leeds City Region Investment Plan and be accountable to the voting public and business community it is set up to serve.”
The Authority will take up that challenge when it officially starts work next year.
TRANSPORT IMPROVEMENTS EXPECTED FIRST
THE first schemes expected to be backed by a new £1 billion transport fund in West Yorkshire can be revealed today.
A park and ride scheme in Leeds, a new road in Wakefield and a package of measures to improve the A653 between Leeds and Dewsbury are among the first projects expected to go ahead.
Leeds City Council leader Keith Wakefield said: “This is good news for people who travel to work and are looking for faster and more efficient connectivity in the region.
“It is also good news because it shows how we are now linking transport better with the creation of jobs and stronger economic performance.
“These projects have been chosen because they will have the most impact for all of us and will produce the most jobs.
“People from all parts of West Yorkshire and York will benefit from them.”
The list of “early delivery schemes” has been unveiled as the five councils in West Yorkshire, along with York, prepare to submit their final plans to the Government to create a new ‘combined authority’.
Overseeing the transport fund will be one of the main jobs of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority which, if Ministers agree, is due to start work next year.
It is estimated the transport fund alone could help create 20,000 jobs and grow the West Yorkshire and York economy by up to £1 billion per year.
Coun Wakefield added: “The West Yorkshire authorities and York are now working very closely toegther as an economic unit to be a powerhouse for the regional economy.”
Other projects on the list include the proposed East Leeds orbital road linking junction 46 of the M1 to west of the A58 and extensions to station car parks across West Yorkshire.