Here’s why it’s time to let England’s councils set their own taxes

Time to give it away, George. The chancellor George Osborne presenting his 2015 budget back in March. Image: Getty.

The author is the Labour leader of Sunderland Council.

As the party conference season arrives, the prospects for devolution in England are the brightest they have been in a very long time. There have been 34 proposals submitted to the government by various city and county regions, including my own north east. This momentum presents an opportunity for councils to show how effective local government can be in delivering services tailored to local communities.

We do, however, have some reason for caution. The Cities & Local Government Bill, the government’s flagship legislation, does not mention tax powers, instead focusing purely on councils’ powers to do what they will with the budgets given to them.

But tax powers are a critical element in driving forward economic prosperity across the country. Without them, the devolution agenda is only half-complete, and there is every danger of back-sliding. The question is, then, how can local authorities continue to press chancellor George Osborne to promote devolution deals, especially on the question of tax?

The first argument to make is that tax raising powers establish powerful incentives for better performance and accountability. Our upcoming report The Missing Multipliers: Devolution to Britain’s Mid Sized Cities, launched in conjunction with ResPublica, estimates that giving local authorities control over council tax, stamp duty, and more power over VAT  would meet Osborne’s deficit reduction objective by saving the Treasury £12.5b over the course of a parliament.


Reforms along these lines will end the situation of divided accountability which complicates the relationship between central and local government. Currently, Whitehall and the chancellor are responsible for allocating budgets but not responsible for the delivery of services. Councils are not responsible for allocating budgets, but are responsible for the delivery of services. This creates an unsustainable situation where councils feel constrained by the chancellor, and the chancellor feels encumbered by local councils.

Giving authorities like ours tax powers can resolve that situation. Councils with ambitious wealth creation plans will not have to go to the Treasury for money or special approval. They can change their tax rates, introduce new exemptions, and create new incentives to support local innovation. That will take the pressure off Whitehall budgets and generate new revenue through local growth, as initiative and the responsibility will be ceded to local councillors directly accountable to their constituents.

There will of course be disagreements between central and local government: anyone would expect that. These disagreements should not, however, obstruct our shared goal of making this country more productive, more innovative, and more efficient.

That’s where tax powers come in. If we are all bound to the same tax policy, we will not have the flexibility to inject life into our local economies. With these powers, the chancellor can fulfil the Government’s national policy objectives, and councils can pursue tailored constituency policies that meet the needs of the communities they were voted in to represent.

Perhaps then we can achieve a smoother and more constructive relationship between local and central government. We can also avoid the perception that the chancellor has veto over local authority policies he does not like by pulling purse strings.

I think this will also reassure our constituents that devolution does not mean that they lose their influence over the policies which affect their lives. Whatever tax policies and incentives a newly empowered authority wants to put in place will be subject to the public at the ballot box. Ultimately, democracy, both local and national, will decide the practical shape, the ambition, and the achievements of devolution.

And that’s what we want. We want to settle the question of accountability, so that we don’t get caught up in a two-way blame game with Whitehall. That’s good news for us, and good news for the government. It provides a framework of responsibility which allows for public service innovation and incentives for improved economic performance. We can all endorse that.

Cllr Paul Watson is leader of Sunderland City Council and chair of the Key Cities group of 26 mid-sized cities.

 
 
 
 

Seville has built its entire public transport system in 10 years. How has it done?

Just another sunny day in Seville. Image: Claude Lynch.

Seville, the fourth largest urban centre in Spain, was recently voted Lonely Planet’s number one city to visit in 2018. The award made a point of mentioning Seville’s impressive network of bicycles and trams, but it neglected to mention that it’s actually their ten year anniversary. The city’s metro opened just two years later.

This makes now an excellent time to look back on Seville’s public transport network – especially because almost all of it was completed in the middle of the global financial crisis. So, is it a good model for modern public transport? Let’s find out.

Cycle Hire

Seville, like any good metropolis, features a cycle hire scheme: Sevici, which is a clever portmanteau of the words ‘Seville’ and ‘bici’, short for bicicleta, the Spanish for, you guessed it, bicycle.

The service, launched in 2007, is run as a public-private partnership. Users can pay a flat weekly fee of €13.33 (£11.81) for unlimited rentals, as long as all the journeys last 30 minutes or less. For the fanatics, there’s a year-long subscription for €33. This makes Sevici cheaper than the London equivalent (£90) but slightly more than that of Paris (€29).

However, the reason why the bike hire scheme has gained particular praise in recent years is down to Seville’s network of cycle paths, snaking around the town centre and into the suburbs. The sheer scale of the scheme, 75 miles of track in total, has prompted comparisons to Amsterdam.

But there is a meaningful distinction between the two cases. First, cycling culture is such a big deal for the Amsterdammers that it has its own Wikipedia page. In Seville, cycling culture is a growing trend, but one that faces an uphill struggle, despite the city’s flatness. Around half of the cycle paths are on a pavement shared by pedestrians; pedestrians often ignore that the space is designed specifically for cycles.

A Sevici station in the town centre. Image: Claude Lynch.

Surprisingly, cyclists will also find exactly the opposite problem: the fact that bicycles enjoy the privilege of so many segregated spaces mean that, if they dare enter the road, motorists are not obliged to show them the same level of respect – because why would they need to enter the road in the first place?

This problem is only compounded by the Mediterranean driving style, one that takes a more cavalier attitude to objects in the road than that of the northern Europeans. While none of this makes cycling in Seville a write-off – it remains the cycling capital of Spain – budding tourists should bear in mind that the cycle paths do not extend far into the old town proper, making them a utility, for the most part, for budding commuters.

Metro

The metro system in Seville consists of a single metro line that travels from Ciudad Expo in the west to Olivar de Quintos in the east. It has three zones, which create a simple and straightforward fare system, based on the number of journeys and number of “saltos” (jumps) between zones, and nothing more.

The need-to-know for tourists, however, is that only three of the metro stations realistically serve areas with attractions: Plaza de Cuba, Puerta de Jerez, and Prado de San Sebastian. Given that a walk between these is only a few minutes slower than by metro, it shows the metro service for what it is: a service for commuters coming from the west or east of town into the city centre.

Some of the behaviour on the network is worth noting, too. Manspreading is still dangerously common. There are no signs telling you to “stand on the right”, so people queue in a huff instead. Additionally, there is no etiquette when it comes to letting passengers debark before you get on, which makes things precarious in rush hour – or if you dare bring your bike on with you.

On the plus side, that’s something you can do; all trains have spaces reserved for bikes and prams (and they’re far more sophisticated than the kind you see on London buses). Trains are also now fitted with USB charging ports for your phone. This comes in addition to platform edge doors, total wheelchair access, and smart cards as standard. Snazzy, then – but still not much good for tourists.

Platform edge doors at Puerta Jerez. Image: Claude Lynch.

The original plan for Seville’s metro, launched in the 70s, would have had far more stations running through the city centre; it’s just that the ambitious plans were never launched, due in equal measure to a series of sinkholes and financial crises. The same kind of problems led to Seville’s metro network being opened far behind schedule, with expansion far down the list of priorities.

Still, the project, for which Sevillanos waited 40 years, is impressive – but it doesn’t feel like the best way to cater to an east-west slice of Seville’s comparatively small urban population of 1m. Tyne and Wear, one of the few British cities comparable in terms terms of size and ambition, used former railways lines for much of its metro network, and gets far more users as a result. Seville doesn’t have that luxury; or where it does, it refuses to use it in tandem.

You only need to look east, to Valencia, to see a much larger metro in practice; indeed, perhaps Seville’s metro wouldn’t look much different today if it had started at the same time as Valencia, like they wanted to. As a result, Seville´s metro ends up on the smaller side, outclassed on this fantastic list by the likes of Warsaw, Nizhny Novgorod, and, inexplicably, Pyongyang.

Seville: a less impressive metro than Pyongyang. Intriguing. Image: Neil Freeman.

Tramway

The tram travels from the high rise suburb-cum-transport hub of San Bernardo to the Plaza Nueva, in the south of the Seville’s old town. This route runs through a further metro station and narrowly avoids a third before snaking up past the Cathedral.

This seems like a nice idea in principle, but the problem is that it’s only really functional for tourists, as tram services are rare and slow to a crawl into the town centre, anticipating pedestrians, single tracks, and other obstacles (such as horse-drawn carriages; seriously). While it benefits from segregated lanes for most of the route, it lacks the raison d'être of the metro due to the fact that it only has a meagre 2km of track.

The tram travelling down a pedestrianised street with a bicycle path to the right. Image: Claude Lynch.

However, staring at a map long enough offers signs as to why the tram exists as it does. There’s no history of trams in Seville; the tracks were dug specifically for the new line. A little digging reveals that it’s again tied into the first plans for Seville’s metro, which aspired to run through the old town. Part of the reason the scheme was shelved was the immense cost brought about by having to dig through centuries-old foundations.

The solution, then, was to avoid digging altogether. However, because this means the tram is just doing the job the metro couldn’t be bothered to do, it makes it a far less useful service; one that could easily be replaced by a greater number of bike locks and, maybe, just maybe, additional horses.


So what has changed since Seville’s transport revolution?

For one thing, traffic from motor vehicles in Seville peaked in 2007 and has decreased every year since, at least until 2016. What is more promising is that the areas with the best public transport coverage have seen continued decreases in traffic on their roads, which implies that something is working.

Seville’s public transport network is less than 15 years old. The fact that the network was built from scratch, in a city with no heritage of cycling, tunnels, or tramways, meant that it could (or rather, had to) be built to spec. This is where comparisons to Amsterdam, Tyne and Wear, or any other city realistically fall out of favour; the case of Seville is special, because it’s all absolutely brand new.

As a result, it’s not unbecoming to claim that each mode of transport was built with a specific purpose. The metro, designed for the commuter; the tramway, for tourists; and cycling, a mix of the two. In a city with neither a cultural nor a physical precedent of any kind for such radical urban transportation, the outcome was surprisingly positive – the rarely realised “build it, and they will come”.

However, it bears mentioning that the ambitious nature of all three schemes has led to scaling back and curtailment in the wake of the economic crisis. This bodes poorly for the future, given that the Sevici bikes are already nearing the end of their lifetime, the cycle lanes are rapidly losing sheen, and upgrades to the tramway are downright necessary to spare it from obsolescence.

The conclusion we can draw from all this, then, appears to be a double-edged one. Ambition is not necessarily limited by a lack of resources, as alternatives may well present themselves. And yet, as is so often the case, when the money stops, so do the tracks.

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