Northern Lights: ‘Nobody is going to ride in on a white charger and do things for us’

View of Sheffield  city centre from Norfolk Park  See Story       Picture Chris Lawton  5 Dec  2006
View of Sheffield city centre from Norfolk Park See Story Picture Chris Lawton 5 Dec 2006

Back in February two reports were published in the same week.

One was the annual State of Sheffield report, which has now been a feature for five years. The second, was the city region Vision Strategy, laying out a programme for economic and social development to be taken forward by the Combined Authority and from next year an elected mayor.

Heads up, eyes firmly to the future, but with a clear commitment to renew our democratic life, the participation of people who have become disillusioned.

Both these reports combine a whole range of inputs from partners. In the first case, obviously within the city of Sheffield and taking a long hard look at what is good and what needs to be improved in the city.

The Vision Strategy was funded and driven by our two universities here in South Yorkshire, together with the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust, which like the universities reaches out across the whole of the sub-region.

Despite some genuine national debate about devolution to city regions over the past few years, it is still true to say the majority of people in South Yorkshire and the East Midlands know very little about what the Combined Authority does, or potentially will be able to do, or what has been going on behind the scenes in trying to sort out a wrangle that’s been taking place with Derbyshire County Council.

This matter was raised in the House of Lords back in March. The Government was laying an Order which allowed the postponement of an elected mayor for the city region until May 2018, while further consultation took place over the wish of Chesterfield Borough Council to join the city region, as Bassetlaw in North Nottinghamshire had already decided to do. North-East Derbyshire which contains Dromfield, have not committed themselves at this stage to joining even though the whole of their travel to work area, economic and cultural existence, is integral to Sheffield and South Yorkshire.

It is not appropriate here to re-run the brief debate in the House of Lords about who did what, why and who might be right and wrong in terms of the original consultation about Chesterfield’s position. Suffice it to say that it is understandable Derbyshire County Council have concerns, but the reality of life is that city regions are here to stay and making the most of them entails ensuring that there is a coherence in terms of the synergy which exists between local authority areas and that each benefit from the critical mass which is developed in a way commonplace on the continent of Europe.

What brought some comfort from this interchange in Parliament, was the clear commitment by Lord Young given to me, that the £30 million available to those areas who commit to a city region with an elected mayor, would be available in the current financial year despite the fact that there is a delay until next May.

This gives us in the Sheffield city region a chance to start the preparation for implementing the Vision Strategy, engaging the wider public, business, community groups and trade unions in the implementation of a programme of renewal and regeneration but also in gaining some momentum and enthusiasm for drawing in investment from elsewhere, providing entrepreneurship and innovation, and facing a simple fact. No one is going to ride in on a white charger and do things for us.

This city and this region voted for Brexit. Right or wrong, disaster or opportunity, we are now on our own. Not just as a nation but as a sub-region, we need to get on with it.

I have the privilege of being the independent chairman of the Sheffield Partnership Board, which organised and is responsible for publishing and taking forward the State of Sheffield analysis. I know painfully that whilst there is a real commitment from people and organisations, businesses and educational institutions to work together, turning aspiration into practice is proving to be an extremely difficult challenge.

We tend to take initiatives, get to a point where there’s just the chance of turning hope into reality, and then pulling the resources and the infrastructure to make it work. This cannot be a lack of ambition, but to others outside our region it sometimes appears so.

That is why in the next two years, we really do need to grasp the opportunity which the strategy offers, the existing preliminary work being undertaken by the local authorities who make up the Combined Authority, and go for it together.

Austerity has dealt a terrible blow to our area. The local authorities in our region have been some of the hardest hit in the country, and frankly the cuts that they have had to make are far greater than anything I experienced in the 1980s as leader of Sheffield, when facing the Thatcher Government.

No wonder therefore that people have felt demoralised and demotivated.

Despite that understandable “heads down” feeling, we have to do something rapidly to raise people’s belief that we can come through this really difficult period and work together, share the challenge together and create that dynamic which made our area the economic and industrial heartbeat of our history.

So, heads up, eyes firmly to the future but with a clear commitment to renew our democratic life, the participation of people who have over many years become disillusioned or even alienated and who understandably, are interested in where the next pay cheque is coming from, and what there is to look forward to at the weekend.

After all, regeneration and sustainable growth are supposed to be about those very people.