Days of cheap bus fares and street lamp counting

Pictured at the Sheffield Town Hall, where local author John Cornwell handed over a cheque for �500 to the Lord Mayor of Sheffield Coun Jackie Drayton, from  proceeds from his book Tomb ofthe Unknown Alderman. The �500 was going to the Kashmir Earthquake Relief Fund.
Pictured at the Sheffield Town Hall, where local author John Cornwell handed over a cheque for �500 to the Lord Mayor of Sheffield Coun Jackie Drayton, from proceeds from his book Tomb ofthe Unknown Alderman. The �500 was going to the Kashmir Earthquake Relief Fund.

IN the end, nemesis Margaret Thatcher had her way.

The Conservative Government killed South Yorkshire County Council on March 31, 1986, sticking the political knife into what had become known as the Socialist Republic.

Farewell to South Yorkshire County Council.

Farewell to South Yorkshire County Council.

It was a label that the Labour members who dominated the authority over 13 years wore with pride, no more so than in refusing to budge over cheap bus fares.

They were determined to defy Mrs T – just as they did Jim Callaghan when he led a Labour government.

From their fortress in the middle of Barnsley, they never shied from controversy as they set about making public transport more attractive, creating jobs and cleaning up an environment ravaged by pit and factory closures.

Critics – and some were members of their own party in district councils like Sheffield who were often uneasy at this new tier of local government (and resented a switch in power to Barnsley) – were quick to pounce.

Demonstration for the saving of cheap bus fares in November 1982

Demonstration for the saving of cheap bus fares in November 1982

Memorably, there was an almighty fuss when county council staff were found to have a job counting lamp-posts.

There was a simple explanation – the authority paid for electricity supplies based on numbers of lamp standards, and nobody knew exactly how many there were.

So a survey was done, which would also be useful for maintenance.

But the image of council workers counting street lamps seemed to encapsulate what many people thought about county councils – too often involved in trivial jobs at ratepayers’ expense.

Locally, theatre, ballet and opera were brought to the masses. The Royal Shakespeare Company performed in a hall in Wath, and the Royal Ballet in a tent in Norfolk Park.

Yet the council’s strategic mandate saw the stirrings of more permanent projects across Sheffield, Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster, such as planning for Supertram and the opening of Rother Valley Country Park.

New forms of policing, sensitive to communities’ needs and concerns, were encouraged. Consumer protection became a priority.

Strong political figures emerged, no more so than Ron Ironmonger, the highly-respected Sheffield councillor who symbolised Labour’s no-nonsense approach in leading the council, and his successor, Roy Thwaites, another Sheffield councillor, who was architect of the controversial transport policy.

At the other side of the chamber was Tory leader Irvine Patnick, who went on to become MP for Hallam and still lives in the city.

There were characters throughout County Hall, right down to a doorman called Ernie, who, as a police officer on duty at a Barnsley match, had once run on to the pitch to remonstrate with a referee.

After the council contributed to the York Minster fire appeal, gratitude was shown by turning police chairman George Moores into a gargoyle.

Locally and nationally, it was the cheap bus fares that generated the most attention.

By not raising fares at a time of rampant inflation, the council soon had the cheapest fares in the UK. Schoolchildren could travel anywhere for 2p, pensioners travelled free.

Objectors, especially businesses, were furious at the burden on the rates. But South Yorkshire was the toast of Labour local authorities.

Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council saw it as a model in tackling their own urban traffic and transport problems.

The Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire was not the best slogan for attracting investment from Britain and abroad but it produced a slogan that stuck long after the council had gone.

A reunion next Wednesday will features speeches by Roy Thwaites, who now lives in Southend, and John Harris, who succeeded Tony Mallet as chief executive in 1984, and lives in Ackworth, near Pontefract.

Mr Harris will pay tribute to three people in particular – Ron Ironmonger (later Sir Ron), Tony Mallett and a Doncaster councillor, Tom Baynham, a former miner and bare-knuckle fighter, an old-style West Riding Labour leader who became chairman.

Reflecting on the authority’s concentration on transport, jobs and the environment, he says: “I would say this, wouldn’t I, but we had quite a considerable body of achievement which we were able to point to.”

The cheap fares can now be seen as a precursor of the free off-peak bus travel now enjoyed by pensioners across the country, he suggests.

But political passions ran deep at County Hall.

“I used to be asked as an officer what was the greatest single problem and I would say it is the desire of the members to politicise everything.

“If you had a Margaret Thatcher and if you wanted to stand on a mountain top and say ‘Do your worst’, that was a dangerous activity to indulge in.

“When you are trying to influence key people, it wasn’t a terribly helpful description to have.”

The council’s functions were largely absorbed by district council councils and police and fire authorities. Bus fares went up.

A South Yorkshire County Council Association still has quarterly meetings for former councillors and employees, and its 25th anniversary reunion lunch is at the Ardsley House Hotel in Barnsley on Wednesday.

Mr Harris went on to chair the Coal Authority, which succeeded the National Coal Board and British Coal, and he still chairs the Coal Forum.

“What’s remarkable,” he says, “is that 25 years after abolition, a full generation, there are still quite a large number of people who will be coming together to mark something which was very important and significant to them and which they remember with considerable affection.”

In some ways, the Socialist Republic lives on.

What did Thatcher ever do for us? (A toast)

Here’s to the old SYCC

Slain in its prime by Mrs. T,

Our bus fares then cost next to nowt

Did we deserve to be slung out?

Led by bluff (sweet gentle) Roy and bold Sir Ron

Who gave us much to dwell upon,

We counted lampposts, tested prams

Dug up our streets (Planned linear tracks) for Super Trams.

Cleared ugly slag heaps by the score

Built roads and bridges without flaw

Within a tent we offered Ballet

Sailed sturdy yachts at Rother Valley.

Protected people from dud goods,

Fought fires and crime and planted woods.

If we were such a paradigm

How come the b*stards (Tories) called out time,

They sent us on our disparate way

– At least we’re back again today.

So raise your glass and hold it high

South Yorkshire County never died.

John Cornwell (former deputy Labour leader)