The new West Yorkshire mayor that we will elect on May 6 has real powers and funding to do something about this, but they must start by recognising the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on the poorest in our society.
That means thinking of this new mayoral role in big and broad ways beyond the specific powers and funding the devolution deal grants.
The mayor should be a powerful voice for our region. On issues of racial justice, inequality and fighting the climate emergency, what the mayor says to set the agenda will be as important as what the mayor does to fulfil their pledges.
You only have to look at how Andy Burnham has put Manchester’s interests front and centre in the national debate. We need this voice for West Yorkshire too.
Whoever wins will have all manner of people clamouring for their attention. That is why we, in the trade union movement, want to be crystal clear about our demands.
We are focused on the three key powers the mayor will have – transport, housing and skills. All of them will significantly boost employment in West Yorkshire.
On transport, we need to see the new mayor immediately take action on our broken bus system. Trade unions have called for the mayor to begin the process for taking our buses into public control within 100 days of taking office.
We’re not calling for an immediate change of the likes we saw with Andy Burnham in March. We are simply demanding that the mayor recognises the system is failing our communities and needs to be fixed. That requires a statutory investigation into which model is better – the current private model, or public control like in London.
We also need to see a much more ambitious plan for West Yorkshire’s mass transit system. We are demanding that the mayor speed up the plans for the new tram or light rail system and get spades in the ground within 18 months.
And this tram system cannot just be to connect wealthier communities with Leeds city centre. Poorer communities who benefited from Leeds’s trams in the past, as well as the communities in Kirklees, Castleford, Brighouse and Birstall, need to see trams coming to their streets.
The possibilities for creating high quality green jobs, apprenticeships in engineering and construction, as well as revitalising local communities with more accessible public transport, are all ours for the taking if the mayor has the vision to push beyond cautious conservatism.
We must also see radical investment in a new programme of social housing construction, and retrofitting existing properties will give us the chance to kickstart a climate-conscious construction industry.
Finally on skills, we must see a mayor who is willing to work with trade unions to tackle the serious issues we face on adult skills and learning. Our FE colleges need support more than ever to equip 18 to 21-year-olds with skills fit for a new green economy. That doesn’t just mean putting them on the right courses. It means having a comprehensive industrial strategy to identify new industries and employment gaps, and place our highly skilled workers into those jobs.
A comprehensive approach to skills will also recognise that this is not about training everyone how to be an engineer. Social care, hospitality jobs, educators and artists are all highly skilled but under-recognised jobs that have a role to play in the green economy.
Wherever the mayor deploys their considerable resources in their new role, we want to see commitments to paying the Real Living Wage, working only with unionised companies, and conditions on support to businesses that guarantee high pay, good terms and conditions, climate-friendly practices and union access.
A West Yorkshire mayor has the potential to do a power of good for our county. The trade union movement offers an open hand and full-throated support for a mayor who will deliver for working people.
Likewise we give fair warning that we will not shrink from calling them out if they fail our communities. Ultimately our message is simple. Give us a seat at the table, and together we can win a better future for West Yorkshire.
Bill Adams is the regional secretary of the TUC in Yorkshire and the Humber.
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