Leeds stands on the brink of a new era, if the Government agrees to grant it new powers. Neil Hudson reports
She has envisioned a city - and a region - with far greated independence, able to sanction its own large-scale transport schemes, raise its own money and generate millions in tourism.
She is one of a group of council leaders in Yorkshire who have submitted a list of ‘asks’ to the Government, demanding sweeping powers in return for agreeing to back plans to bring in an elected mayor.
In the latest twist to the debate over whether Yorkshire should have an elected mayor - something the Government is pushing for, the new leader of Leeds City Council spoke about the 27-point list of ‘asks’ they have presented to the Government. They are published in full today on our website.
They include radical powers to generate millions of pounds from new business rates, new powers to take over bus routes and fares and new powers to raise extra money through council tax.
Coun Blake also said she wanted to see a new leisure complex ‘similar to Legoland’ in Leeds and there is a the possibility of a new conference centre also.
She said she would be “very disappointed” if Chancellor George Osborne did not agree to the wishlist submitted in response to his demand that devolution be tied to the region electing a mayor.
“Over many years we have struggled to define what Leeds is. We want it to thrive and have a strong economy, be a good place to come and do business but also want to develop our ambition to become a compassionate city and what happens to people who live, work and play here?
“We have so many strengths in Leeds, with so many companies wanting to come and locate here. The Trinity development is a great example and John Lewis opening in 2016 is massive for the city - they are very picky about where they open stores. Across the road, we have the investment in Kirkgate Market and plans to refurbish and extend West Yorkshire Playhouse.”
As if that wasn’t enough, a host of sporting events are set to come to Leeds, including the rugby world cup in September, with two games to be played at Elland Road and the world triathlon series will be held here next year, the first time it has not been held in a capital city.
All that bodes well for Leeds but also the region but even this is just the bedrock for what could be an even bigger prize and that is something Coun Blake and other leaders in Yorkshire are working hard towards.
In response to the Government’s call for regional elected mayors, they have submitted their own list of ‘wants’.
Some may prove controversial, like the ability to impose a levy on council tax to fund major infrastructure and transport projects. The councils also want to retain all new business rates, a move which would net them millions.
But less controversial would be the ability to sanction big scheme quickly ‘within one year rather than 10’. So, projects which have dogged Leeds in the past, such as Supertram, which cost tens of millions of pounds in the design stage only for it to be shelved after a decade of hope, could be green-lit almost immediately. That may not suit everyone and, indeed, Coun Blake was keen to point out that any mayor would still be subject to a check, in the form of a cabinet, comprising local authority leaders.
“In Manchester, the cabinet have a two-thirds veto, meaning if they do not like a certain plan, they can overrule the mayor - we would also want that.”
She went on: “Up tp the election, Nick Glegg was saying he was going to do a deal where we did not have to have a mayor to bring down the powers, clearly none of us anticipated majority Tory government, let’s be honest but the first thing [George] Osborne did was to say he wanted to push on with devolution but the conditions for the serious powers we are asking for would be an elected mayor. The conversations we had before were for a city mayor, now it’s for a city region mayor.
“We are in the middle of negotiations at the moment - we will consider an elected mayor if and only if powers given to us are substantial to justify that change of government but the really important thing is any mayor would receive powers coming down from Westminster and not coming up from the local authorities.”
She added: “The difficulty is the speed with which the Government wants us to move. Personally I’m not in favour of directly elected mayors but that’s the offer on the table. The potential prize on offer is huge, if we are able to grow this economy as we want to.”
Yorkshire has an economic output of around £56bn, larger than Wales, it is the largest financial centre outside London, with 27m visitors a year, 400,000 of those from overseas.
Coun Blake cited several key projects which would help make the Yorkshire side of the Northern Powerhouse become a reality, including the new south entrance to Leeds Train Station, the planned HS2 and HS3 terminals but she would not be drawn on when this might happen.
If the Government responds quickly and agrees to the list of ‘asks’, then we may have a mayor much sooner than we think.