Mon, 22 July 2024

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By Ben Guerin
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We must stop tinkering around the edges, and set out a clear plan for devolution and regional growth

4 min read

Labour’s achievements at a local level should be held up as examples of what a national Labour government would do, writes Dan Jarvis MP

That we’re living through the nadir of British democracy is now a widely accepted view. It would be hard to argue otherwise – a decade of economic stagnation, crippling austerity and a national government left paralysed over Brexit has meant faith in our political system has disintegrated.

Despite the challenges nationally, much has been achieved by Labour at a local level. For my part, I am getting on with the job of mayor of South Yorkshire, championing the wider North from parliament and driving forward the devolution agenda forward.

For generations deindustrialised areas such as Barnsley have strived to find a sense of purpose. My aim as mayor and as an MP, is to regenerate our region and put people back at the heart of decision-making.

On my watch and working with our local councils, we’ve invested nearly £100m in our communities and supported a range of projects, including the opening of three new Advanced Manufacturing Engineering Research Centres. For the first time in a generation, we’ve seen a resurgence of high-skilled jobs in the sector. This is just the start: we’re forging a strategic economic plan and a local industrial strategy – both firsts for the region – with the goal of building a truly inclusive economy.

Transport is the lifeblood of the economy. And if you believe in social mobility then you must ensure people are connected with the places they need to go and are able to access opportunities. This is why I’m investing so much effort to improve our public transport system. I’ve produced a transport strategy and Integrated Rail Plan; established a major bus review; launched a new Tram-Train from Rotherham to Sheffield; and appointed Sarah Storey as my Active Travel Commissioner to tackle air quality and congestion and improve public health.

Where you grow up shouldn’t determine where you end up. But in too many communities, this is often the case. To address the widening skills gap, I’ve invested in initiatives such as South Yorkshire Futures, expanded the successful Sheffield Children’s University model and set up a new Skills and Employment board to develop our work. We’ve also launched Working Win, an internationally pioneering health-led employment trial offering vital support for those with mental or physical health problems who are struggling with work. With 4,000 people signed up, the impact has been transformative.

The importance of the economy, transport and jobs is unquestionable, but we shouldn’t underestimate the value of investing in people’s social and cultural capital. Everyone, regardless of their socio-economic background, deserves the chance to lead a richer, healthier life. It’s why I established a Music Board, funded a series of projects to promote South Yorkshire’s unique cultural offer and am working on a strategy to improve both our natural environment and preserve our cultural heritage.

While I take pride in what my team has achieved, the truth is that it has been an incredibly challenging period. Westminster has been consumed by Brexit; agreement on the future of regional devolution has – at best – been slow, and the funding I have is vastly outstripped by cuts to local authority budgets. Worryingly, we still don’t know how the Government intends to replace the half a billion pounds that South Yorkshire has received from Whitehall and the EU over the last five years.

It sometimes feels like we are just tinkering around the edges, because even those resources that are available come with unnecessary limitations that inhibit creativity, making it impossible to deliver the changes we need. Under these circumstances it’s hard to plan. But this only makes it even more important to try. As elected Labour representatives we must do all we can to create greater certainty, in a time of uncertainty; prosperity, when growth is slowing; and take a long-term view amidst short-term pressures. 

It’s also essential that Labour demonstrates our credentials as the party of devolution and showcases our achievements in local and mayoral authorities as the example for what Labour values could achieve for the country nationally. I was encouraged by the recent proposal to create a ‘Northern Treasury’ that would see £250bn of infrastructure funding transferred to regional government. This is the game-changing level of commitment needed to unlock the North’s potential and implement structural reform. 

As we prepare for the future – and for life beyond the Brexit debate – our priority must be to build a collaborative, sustainable and inclusive economy where everyone shares the benefits. Transforming a regional economy is not an easy task but this is my ambition for South Yorkshire; it’s now up to Westminster to give us the tools needed to do the job.

Dan Jarvis is Labour MP for Barnsley Central and mayor of the Sheffield City Region.

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