Lord David Blunkett Column: ‘It is important to work together to make a difference in Sheffield’ 

Sheffield city centre
Sheffield city centre

One of the ways in which I’m able to put a little back into Sheffield, the city that has been so kind to me over the years, is to Chair the Sheffield City Partnership Board.

When I was invited to take on this role by the institutions, organisations and businesses that make up the Partnership, it was made abundantly clear to me that I would not have an ‘executive role’. 

In other words, this was all about pulling people together, sharing and trying to get those with influence and resources, to work together. It was not me returning to boss people about.

Getting those representing the key players in the city to share what they are doing, and to learn about and dovetail with what others intend to do, is worthwhile in itself. Taking this a stage further and getting people to think how, by pooling both expertise and their current activities, we can do so much more, is the crucial task.

Naturally, those with a job to do, whether it's in delivering services, working in the voluntary and community sector or running a business, have enough on their hands without having to work out how this might gel with what others are up to.

Yet the potential is enormous. That is why over recent months the Partnership Board have sought to get everyone concentrated on what they might do, including working together, to accelerate what we have been calling Inclusive and Sustainable Growth.

In other words, how can we make future economic activity relevant to people in their own lives?

This is a long-term venture, immediate gains are not obvious. However, it has been possible to identify steps that would have an immediate impact. One of those is how all the large institutions buy goods and services.

What is known as ‘procurement’ is worth tens of millions of pounds a year in Sheffield and therefore how we keep this cash in the city, rather than outside interests gaining, is vital.

It is now seven years since the work of the Fairness Commission. It illustrated the divides which we all know exist, and how some steps might be taken to narrow that gap, in education, health, earnings and housing to name but a few.

Some progress has been made but the need to refresh this and to concentrate minds has never been more relevant.

So, on Thursday, October 11 at 6pm we intend to launch a document for discussion and future action which will set the scene and put forward some propositions as to how we can do better at sharing future prosperity across the city and the City Region.

This is not a blueprint but a staging post.  We are seeking ideas and proposals for action and encouraging the public to work together to tackle the divide so graphically illustrated by the vote on the referendum two years ago.

Let me be clear, this is not a "strategy". The intention is to stimulate ideas and co-operative working.

To nudge those with influence to: think about how future policy and the actions that flow from that could help to overcome inequality; use the time and talent of all our people and coordinate action where possible; and to increase the impact and make the most over every pound spent.

Is clear that the world of work is going to change over the next decade. Robotics and wider technology will undoubtedly have an impact.

How as a city can we prepare for that, including giving people new skills, using lifelong learning as a way of ensuring that those who traditionally lose out and become the victims, on this occasion can get the support they need to take advantage of change?

Yes, it's understandable that at a time of austerity that those making difficult decisions feel under pressure and therefore act defensively. But there's never been a time when we needed to be more transparent, to try and reach out and ensure that people have a part to play in determining priorities.

I know that we need to be clear about the two questions that so often come up when reaching out and asking people to contribute their thoughts. One is ‘but how on earth as an individual or even as an institution or a business can I really make a difference?".

And the other is ‘isn't it your job to get on with this? The rest of us have enough problems making ends meet.’

That is why, for just a couple of hours on October 11, those who can make it or would like to join in online, are invited not just to answer those two questions but to take a look at the paper we’ve produced and to ask themselves that other question: ‘well, what can I do?’.