Today marks the first set of major national and local elections in what is already seeming to be an interminable and bitter campaign for the 2015 General Election. Some of you may already have gone out to vote and if you haven’t, I urge you to go and do so for whoever you think best. However, a couple of things have happened during the week which cast an interesting light on the process for me on a local level.
I’ve already written about the strange case of the Leeds Trolleybus – a hugely expensive, £250m white elephant which I’ve yet to meet anyone who supports, regardless of party affiliation, unless they are actually earning a living from the work involved in grinding its way through the planning process. Finding myself temporarily (hopefully) underemployed I went to watch part of the Public Inquiry into whether the Transport Works Act Order to enable it to proceed should be granted and to help out the local campaigners against it. Looking at the list of registered objectors who are participating in the attempt to put the case against the proposers of the scheme, it is notable in that it only includes one councillor (Barry Anderson, Conservative councillor for Adel & Wharfedale ward). Yet, as I previously noted, the official position of our local LibDem MP and councillors, as well as the Labour PPC and candidate for the ward I live in is also to oppose. So, what is actually going on?
The election material from both the LibDem sitting councillor seeking re-election today and the Tory candidate place opposition to the trolleybus right at the top. Perhaps belatedly, Greg Mulholland has sought constituents’ views on the issue and come out clearly against the proposals. There is agreement that it would be best if the money earmarked for the project could be used for another, better scheme.
However, below, you can see the election materials for the local Labour council candidate.
Now, it is fine for them to decide that they don’t want to prioritise opposition to the trolleybus, or indeed, that they would like to remain consistent with their party’s line in using the Labour majority on Leeds City Council to vote the trolleybus through (and to continue to commit council resources to it rather than use them for any number of other things – the cost of engaging the QC representing the council and Metro to argue for the Order could perhaps have been used to reduce the impacts of any cuts elsewhere in council services, three months of QC time plus preparation would pay for a lot of dinner ladies and cleaners). Many of the things in those leaflets are interesting and popular, even if many of them are also outside the competence of a city councillor.
However, a funny thing happened. When I tweeted the Labour candidate and PPC, they replied saying that they opposed the trolleybus and that their materials set this out (which they clearly don’t). When I asked whether they would use their positions on the council to get the council to withdraw the application for the Order (which would enable them to kill it off were they to choose to do so), they said they would, but only if the money earmarked for the project was kept available.
Now, the North West Leeds Transport Forum, which is the principal group of local objectors, has made it clear that its preference would be for the money to be retained and used for a better solution to Leeds transport issues. At the local residents meeting I blogged about previously, that was also the line taken by Greg Mulholland. But what was striking to me was that at least the Labour position is that it would only object to this incredibly expensive and misguided proposal (which they agree is the wrong solution to local transport needs) if this happened. They also made the point that this was in the gift of LibDem Minister Baroness Kramer. So, they’d be happy enough for the Order to be granted and the trolleybus to be built even though they and everyone else agrees it is unnecessary and harmful.
With this attitude, no wonder Labour has a problem with being seen as responsible with the economy and public spending. They’d rather spend money on something, anything, however bad and unwanted it is, than save the money, if not for Leeds, but for the country. If the Department for Transport funding fell away with the failure of the trolleybus, it would mean that there would be £250m less pressure for cuts elsewhere in the economy to be made. Few in Leeds would weep for the loss of the trolleybus and unless and until the council come up with something better to improve public transport in Leeds, what would really be lost if the funding was withdrawn?
Just as we’re all used to little things suddenly being rushed into effect just before a local election (like the 20mph zone and speed cushions plus speed limit signs on single track dead end roads round my way) here’s a case of a massive piece of spending being ploughed on with regardless of merit, just to spend the budget in case it is threatened. If that isn’t profligacy, it’s hard to know what might be. And in a year’s time, they want to form the next government. Be worried.