On Thursday 5th May, local elections take place across the country. This year will be bittersweet for me as my term as the Labour and Co-op mayor of South Yorkshire draws to a close.
As I look back on the last four years – despite the challenges of austerity, Brexit, flooding and Covid – we have made real progress towards building a stronger, fairer and greener South Yorkshire. I want to reflect on what has been achieved and to wish my successor well – and I’ll be working hard to ensure that it is our Labour candidate Oliver Coppard who takes the reigns in May.
My successor’s first days in the job will be markedly different from my own. I was the only metro mayor in the country to take office without a devolution deal in place. I had no powers and no money! I spent much of the first two years fighting hard to get the devolution deal over the line and unlock the powers and resources to drive our region forward.
Having secured the devolution deal, it was vital that we made best use of every possible penny in investment by leveraging our gainshare funding to create a £500m renewal fund. This record investment into South Yorkshire’s economy – sat alongside the hundreds of millions invested in vital projects throughout my term – will drive our economic renewal in the aftermath of Covid; help regenerate our high streets and urban centres; build a stronger regional economy; and create and protect thousands of good jobs.
But I have not just focused on building a bigger economy. I have made it my mission to build a better one, too. That’s why we have reformed the Mayoral Combined Authority’s procurement rules to leverage public spending to support the public good – backing the Living Wage and creating apprenticeships. And I’ve launched the Ownership Hub, the first of its kind in the country, to provide practical support and guidance to businesses wanting to make the transition towards becoming worker-owned co-operatives.
The final piece of the jigsaw was creating a greener South Yorkshire to lead the way in tackling the climate emergency and accelerating our region’s transition to net zero by 2040 at the very latest. There is a false perception that climate change is a middle-class hobby-horse. Not true. If your living room is underwater because of catastrophic flooding, or your energy bills are soaring because you live in a poorly-insulated home, the climate emergency matters to you. That’s why we launched an innovative catchment-wide flooding plan that will protect 10,300 homes and 2,700 businesses; invested over £85m in active travel; and are working to retrofit homes to improve energy efficiency and cut bills for thousands of residents currently in the grip of Boris Johnson’s cost-of-living crisis.
I’m proud of delivering the big things I set out to achieve. I think we’ve shown that devolution works. That we need more of it so we can forge our destiny ourselves; and that our party must make best use of the fantastic metro mayors who are doing bold, innovative things right across the country.
But I’m equally proud of the little differences that being a Labour mayor in power can make. The opportunity to put our values into action every single day is the most important thing about serving in public life, and I am immensely grateful to the people of South Yorkshire for giving me that opportunity to serve them. This is starkly contrasted with 11 years as an opposition MP, watching a succession of hopeless Tory governments wreak unspeakable damage on our country.
Serving as mayor – the only Labour MP in office! – has only strengthened my resolve to help deliver a transformative Labour government. That is what I’ll be working my hardest to secure.