Northern Lights: The opportunity of a lifetime to make a difference in our city region

Dan Jarvis
Dan Jarvis

Last Thursday a new political entity came into being.

The new South Yorkshire mayor now has a huge opportunity to shape the economic, social and cultural identity of the Sheffield region in a way which has not been possible for at least a generation.

I am sure of the power of cities and of the city regions to drive forward with successful change: And arguably there are four thousand years of urban history to cite in favour of the argument

Dan Jarvis, who is a former paratrooper and who is currently the MP for Barnsley Central, now has the task of turning that opportunity into hard-headed political reality.

The birth of the Sheffield city region combined authority has been a difficult one.

Anyone with a serious interest in the twists and turns of the devolution deal needs endless patience and an also needs an eye for complexity.

At the conception stage, the vision was of a city region which was based largely on Sheffield journey-to-work geography, drawing in not just the four south Yorkshire local authorities of Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley, and Doncaster, but also drawing in the five north Derbyshire local authorities.

However, after a judicial review of the original consultation process the five Derbyshire authorities fell by the wayside.

After the five Derbyshire authorities had fallen away the four remaining south Yorkshire local authorities found it difficult to agree on the nature of the devolution deal.

It seemed that at least two of them openly expressed their strong preference to be in a whole Yorkshire arrangement rather than a south Yorkshire one. At this stage tempers became frayed. Local referenda were held – with predictably low turnouts. The consequence of all this is that Dan Jarvis has been elected to an office which, as yet, has no powers, other than to chair meetings of the combined authority, and no budget.

All four local of the South Yorkshire local authorities need to consult on mayoral powers before the government can confirm devolution and they need to release the gainshare funding of £30m per year over thirty years – in itself a relatively small sum, but a sum with the potential to leverage in other public and private funding.

Despite all of that, this is a hugely significant moment in the development of Sheffield and its region.

Before Brexit cast a baleful shadow over people’s thinking about the longer-term development of Europe, there was a good deal of analysis arguing that the future of Europe was as a union of cities and one of regions.

In the UK, the development of mayoral authorities in Manchester, Birmingham and London has seen the rise of influential civic leaders – these are serious figures like Andy Burnham, Andy Street and Sadiq Khan. Continental Europe is further down the track. In France the former Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, became mayor of Bordeaux.

He, like Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris and, in Spain, Ada Colau Ballano, mayor of Barcelona, has led the way in urban and civic renewal, exercising strong influence on their regions in the process. The transformations of Bordeaux and of Barcelona in particular, have been striking. As the Sheffield City Region mayor, Dan Jarvis will not just lead the long-term development of the region, building coalitions to drive change and improve prosperity, but also define the office itself.

It’s now a little over a year since Sheffield Hallam, working with the University of Sheffield and the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Trust, set out their own vision for the long-term prosperity of the city region – and now we look forward to working closely with the Mayor to make that a reality.

A number of Sheffield Hallam led projects are central to this. For example, there is the development of a Health Innovation hub at the Sheffield Olympic Legacy Park which will contribute to economic growth and the quality of life in and beyond the region.

Our South Yorkshire Futures social mobility partnership is focused on improving educational attainment and raising aspiration and our expanding degree apprenticeship provision provides a new talent pipeline to increase productivity and address skills gaps.

I’m sure of the power of cities and their regions to drive successful change: arguably, there are four thousand years of urban history to cite in favour of the argument.

The task in the 21st century is to focus on the contemporary infrastructure which makes it possible: an innovation-rich economy, high quality digital connectivity, universities, cadres of highly educated people, a cultural offer which makes a city compelling. Dan Jarvis, as mayor of the Sheffield City Region, has the opportunity of a political lifetime to make a tangible difference.