A LOT has happened politically since David Cameron and George Osborne stepped away from political life. Our national discourse has, it seems, been almost completely consumed by Brexit and the daily travails of whether a deal can – or will – ever be secured with the European Union.
While I don’t in any way belittle the importance of these momentous EU Brexit negotiations, I am much more focused, as a Conservative living in the North of England, on how we can improve the ‘nuts and bolts’ of daily life for ordinary hard working people.
A better education for all our children, an NHS which can face the complex needs of the South Yorkshire region, a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Indeed, Brexit seems a million miles away when we clearly focus on what Sheffield and our wider city-region needs to accomplish in the important years ahead.
For me, almost without doubt, the greatest success of the David Cameron and George Osborne years was the then Chancellor’s so-called ‘Northern Powerhouse’ agenda. Of course, one could ask ‘what’s in a title?’, but here was a Conservative government recognising that the North of our country had received a very bad deal when compared to the South over many decades.
Here, also, was a Conservative Chancellor prepared to grasp the issue head-on and work to make sure that greater funds and opportunity was brought directly to the North.
In the early days of the Northern Powerhouse, the initiative was often derided as Tory ‘window-dressing’. I remember opposition colleagues spouting that it was a lot of ‘hot air’, which would really go nowhere. A Conservative attempt for once to do something positive for the North.
I never felt that these cynical views reflected the reality. It was clear to me from the outset that Cameron and Osborne were passionate about these proposals, and absolutely believed that giving local people better and stronger devolved governance was without doubt the best way to improve local accountability and service delivery. Local people know best what is right for their area, how to spend their hard-earned tax receipts and should be trusted by Government to make as many decisions locally as possible.
What did surprise me, however, was to see Sheffield City Region at the front of the cue to accept the then Government’s devolved offer in 2015. The sight of George Osborne, Julie Dore, leader of Sheffield City Council, and Sir Steve Houghton, leader of Barnsley Council, standing together as they signed a deal that offered the wider region new powers and over £900m in funding over 30 years was all rather unexpected, but welcome, nevertheless, as Sheffield and South Yorkshire put aside party political differences in favour of recognising the offer at hand.
I am, of course, aware that there remains considerable discussion as we approach the Sheffield mayoral election this May about whether a countywide ‘One Yorkshire’ devolution deal might be the best way forward – not just for South Yorkshire but the county as a whole.
How times change – it doesn’t seem very long ago that many people across the region were in two minds about whether such an enhanced devolved approach would indeed take off.
I would love to think that a Conservative candidate might be successful as Sheffield embarks on this devolved road ahead. A week is, of course, a long time in politics, but the smart money has to be on a Labour success. If this were indeed the case, I would hope that any Labour mayor – perhaps Dan Jarvis MP who talks with great common sense and has served his country with distinction – would reach out to all parts of our city and region and that Conservatives, and all parties, would be invited to join this exciting city-wide vision for success.
Sheffield and our city have a great deal to look forward to, but we have to recognise that the past in our region has not been covered with glory.
Any city which builds a perfectly good airport and then voluntary chooses to place warehouses on a £3m runway very much needs to take a reality check.
Such stop-start befuddled strategic thinking will not help the city and region achieve the great success I know we can.
I have always been a supporter of devolved mayoral leadership. A single individual, pulling on a team of talented people, absolutely has a clear and transparent mandate to progress regional success for all our diverse communities.
I wish all mayoral candidates well for the upcoming elections and do so knowing that this would not have happened without the visionary leadership of David Cameron and George Osborne.
It may be ironic that the Conservatives are to thank for giving Sheffield, and the county, Yorkshire’s first taste of devolution.
Dr Spencer Pitfield OBE is a longstanding Conservative candidtae in Sheffield and South Yorkshire. He’s director of Toryworkers. See www.toryworkers.co.uk or @toryworkers for further details.