Oliver Coppard can be the strong voice South Yorkshire needs as mayor - Jayne Dowle

The new South Yorkshire Mayor, Oliver Coppard, says he’s going to do politics differently. On a visit to colleges in Rotherham and Sheffield, he explained that this means, “being visible, talking, engaging and – most of all – listening”.

Good luck to the lad. I remember Oliver coming to a regeneration scrutiny meeting I was attending at Barnsley Council when his dad, Phil Coppard, was chief executive. He was bright and engaged young man with a clear passion for local issues – recently graduating from Leeds University with a degree in politics and parliamentary studies.

He’s 41 now, which makes me feel old, but I’d say just the right age to have gained enough life and political experience – he came a close second to Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam at the General Election in 2015, reducing the former Lib Dem leader’s majority to 2,000 – and young enough to have energy and a fresh pair of eyes for the job in hand.

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And what a job that is. This role, leading South Yorkshire, could be so pivotal in levelling up, not just the country but the region itself. But let’s be brutally honest. Too few people know or care about the role of our metro mayor and what potential it offers; just 26 per cent of the electorate bothered to turn out and vote on May 5.

Oliver Coppard.Oliver Coppard.
Oliver Coppard.

Coppard’s victory was comfortable; when first and second preferences were counted, he took 71.4 per cent, with the Conservative candidate and Barnsley businessman Clive Watkinson, the managing director of a furniture company, coming a distant second place. Even with just a quarter of the electorate managing to put any kind of cross in the box, Coppard’s victory shows us two interesting things about South Yorkshire.

Despite long-held Labour seats falling to the Conservatives in the ‘Red Wall’ General Election of 2019, and despite the fact that Coppard led the ‘Remain’ campaign in pro-Brexit Yorkshire and the Humber during the EU referendum, and despite the previous incumbent, Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis, managing to be both low-key and divisive, there is still enough of a groundswell of Labour support in the region to make him the new Mayor.

This means Coppard has a strong foundation to work from. And as we know in South Yorkshire, hard work is often the making of a man (or woman). Never more so than now, as we emerge from the pandemic into the worst cost of living crisis in living memory.

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Thanking his supporters on his website, Coppard has set out his stall. Rightly, he acknowledges that “both the possibilities in front of us and the challenges we face are significant”. If you live in South Yorkshire, you will likely totally understand.

We know that with our diverse and historic city, Sheffield, our innovative engineering, manufacturing and green technology industries, two world-class universities, leading teaching hospitals and some of the finest landscapes and heritage assets in the country, we have at least as much to offer as more favoured parts of both our region and the UK.

However, on the other side (literally) of the coin, we also have some of the largest social challenges in the country to tackle. Too many of our communities fall within the lowest indices for child poverty, educational attainment and health and wellbeing, bringing down levels of aspiration and ambition with a thud.

A metro mayor’s powers are limited. He can’t personally transform the life chances of a poor kid growing up on a council estate or provide healthy meals for the families who rely on cheap snacks and food banks.

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Coppard does outline specific areas he wants to tackle, including improving bus services, fostering the creation of diverse employment opportunities that capitalise on the skills of our young people and graduates.

But he knows there are fundamentals to deal with first. As he says in his website address, “we have all too many people who are struggling to get by, for whom life is too hard and too short, for whom the months are too long for pay cheques that are too small”.

These are powerful words and strong images. I hope, above all, that Coppard can keep up this level of passion. He can’t solve all the problems of South Yorkshire overnight, but what he can do is to be a strong voice which never stops putting our point across.

I hope that this is what he means by “doing politics differently”. I don’t want a metro mayor who pays lip service or bides his time until a bigger political opportunity comes along. I want one who will never forget the people who put him into power and who believes in his job 100 per cent.

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When asked after his victory if he would be an outspoken Andy Burnham-style mayor or a more restrained mayor, like Dan Jarvis, he said: “I’m Oliver Coppard, I’m going to do it my way.”

Let’s hope that Oliver’s way helps South Yorkshire to find the way forward it deserves.

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