We stand at a significant moment for South Yorkshire. The Sheffield City Region devolution deal is expected to pass into law this month. This deal brings an extra £900m of funding over the next 30 years, and additional powers over skills, transport and housing. With the current Coronavirus crisis dominating our lives, these powers and resources are needed now more than ever.
Covid-19, and the subsequent economic turmoil, have hit South Yorkshire hard. This devolution deal will help us to better weather the storm. I am leading on a recovery plan, working closely with local authorities, the government, businesses, universities and colleges, trade unions and community groups, to ensure we see not just economic recovery, but renewal. To do that, we will need further powers and investment. I’m clear that the current deal is just the start of our devolution journey as we look to build a stronger, fairer future for South Yorkshire.
So how do we get there, and what does this future look like?
Metro Mayors command unique local knowledge, networks and legitimacy, and having a seat at the table in the national government’s recovery planning is vital. That is all the more the case given that we aspire to do more than just return to the status quo and if we are to avoid a repeat of mistakes made following the last economic crisis. The massive public investment which is undoubtedly needed to support our recovery must not be another missed opportunity, as it was after 2008.
High on the list must be ending the infrastructure and spending gap which has long favoured already-affluent areas, especially London and the South-East, over places like South Yorkshire: the gap in transport spending alone has been worth £66bn over the last decade. Now more than ever, the government must give substance to its rhetoric about ‘levelling up’. It is past time to fix our disgracefully decrepit railways, and to invest in a bus service that truly serves the public good. But we must also transform our infrastructure for cycling and walking, and put in place the building blocks for compact and liveable “15 minute neighbourhoods.”
Here in South Yorkshire we are not short of shovel-ready projects. We could start by expanding our world class Advance Manufacturing Research Centre, especially its work on low-carbon technologies, and investing in super-fast broadband. We could invest in our world-beating universities – but also in much-needed skills training and support for our students who have suffered from disruption as a result of Covid-19. Unemployment is going to be a huge challenge here – not just for the ‘class of 2020’ – and our existing support is unfit for purpose. We should build on programs like our own successful Working Win pilot and Skills Bank; schemes that have proven success and, with more funding, could help more people through this time of crisis.
It would be equally unforgivable not to seize the moment for another sort of transformation. We desperately need an ambitious Green New Deal, not just to decarbonise our economy, but to improve our communities, modernise our industries, and create well-paid jobs. Climate change is unequivocally a greater threat than Covid-19: this is quite likely the last, best chance for the UK to take a lead in addressing it.
We urgently need major investment in flood prevention: much of South Yorkshire was underwater six months ago. That links to our plans for a major programme of tree-planting, which can also help regenerate our towns. So can investments in culture and tourism, putting Yorkshire in the spotlight where it belongs – not as somewhere ‘left behind’ but as the star attraction we know it to be.
All these elements are part of a wider vision for a transformed City Region, with not just a bigger economy but a better one, more resilient and more closely linked to the wellbeing of its inhabitants. There is a powerful overlap here between economy, environment, community empowerment, and quality of life, which would represent a fundamental change of direction, not just of pace.
Covid-19 has strengthened what was already a compelling case to give South Yorkshire the investment and powers it needs to fulfil its potential. But what we have now across England is still too often delegation, not devolution, with regions dependent on pleading for handouts that are often tied to specific projects and policies aligned with Westminster’s priorities, not our own. Rather than a right fundamentally belonging to the people, power is a gift from the centre, and one that can be given or taken away.
This must change and the Government must match the ambitions of Metro Mayors and local leaders to build back better. South Yorkshire’s devolution deal will undoubtedly be a moment of celebration and we will continue to work with the wider region through the Yorkshire Leaders board. Together, we must ensure the Coronavirus recovery is a moment of renewal for our region and the country, in which we tackle problems and injustices that have been neglected for far too long. It will help us unlock our huge potential, marking a new beginning for us – but it is not the end of our journey. We are just getting started.
Dan Jarvis, Mayor of Sheffield City Region