Sunshine poured in through the windows of the training centre in Sheffield, a stone’s throw from Meadowhall shopping centre, as the first hustings of the South Yorkshire mayoral campaign took place on a glorious spring morning.
But while the weather was set fair, the political forecast for the county is far from certain, as the six candidates vying to become its first directly-elected mayor acknowledged today. A lack of agreement between local leaders over the configuration of an historic devolution deal means the winning candidate will have no central government money and few powers.
During the hustings, organised by the Centre for Cities think tank and the Sheffield City Region Chambers of Commerce, the hopefuls outlined their plans for skills, transport and jobs two weeks ahead of the election.
And the elephant in the room, the mayor’s lack of resources compared with his or her counterparts in Manchester, Birmingham and the Tees Valley, was quickly raised as a pivotal issue for whoever is voted in on May 3.
“We know this region is suffering because we can’t work together”, Richard Wright, the chamber of commerce’s executive director, said as he posed the first question.
“Funding is being held back, there are all sorts of things. At seems at times that we work in a very disparate way or a very parochial way.
“My question is simple - depending on what powers you get as mayor, and I gather that won’t be decided until after the election, what plan do you have to actually bring the local authorities together, how are you going to make it happen, and how can we as the business community help you?”
His reference to local in-fighting comes after a turbulent period where the leaders of two of South Yorkshire’s councils pulled out of the devolution deal agreed with then-Chancellor George Osborne in 2015, which would have seen £30m a year and a host of powers drawn down from central government.
Since then, wrangling has continued over whether any agreement to transfer powers from Whitehall to South Yorkshire could be a precursor to a more ambitious deal taking in Yorkshire’s entire 5.3m population.
Describing the problems as deep-seated and long-standing, Liberal Democrat Hannah Kitching, who owns a Sheffield manufacturing firm, said the situation called for an “honest broker, someone who is removed from the situation and is not part of the problem already in South Yorkshire.
She added that her experiences elsewhere in the country, including Leeds and Manchester, had shown her that getting a good deal for Sheffield did not mean that Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster would have to lose out.
“I wonder if we have got to the point where we have to bring in some independent mediation,” she said, as the first person responding to the question. “And I do mean genuinely independent, not someone who is already invested in some part of the Sheffield city region.”
Conservative Ian Walker, answering second, said his first act would be to reinstate the South Yorkshire forum, a vehicle that brought together business and civic leaders to create a dialogue to move forward.
“The other thing I would do is communicate to the other authorities, Barnsley and Doncaster, that this is the deal on the table at the moment, if they sign up to it it starts to flow funds into South Yorkshire.
“We are not ruling out a Yorkshire-wide deal, but...this is the deal for now, let’s get going for the benefit of all of us,” said Mr Walker, an engineer and former chairman of Sheffield’s Training and Enterprise Council.
Continuing the theme of Labour’s dominance in the area being a factor in the impasse, Green party candidate and Sheffield city councillor Rob Murphy said the secure position occupied by local council leaders led to a “fiefdom mentality where they are only looking after their area”.
“At the moment people hear that [Sheffield council leader] Julie Dore has fallen out with [Doncaster mayor] Ros Jones, if they saw that in front of their eyes on the computer, in a webcast, it would shame these people into working together.”
Suggesting he was the only one of the six candidates who had ever attended a Sheffield City Region combined authority meeting, Rotherham-born Yorkshire Party candidate Mick Bower said the situation had made the county a “laughing stock”.
He said: “We are clear where we want to get to, an all-Yorkshire deal. We have said the best value for money and fairest way to get most prosperity for Yorkshire is to have an assembly similar to Scotland. If I’m elected, there’s no doubt about that, and we can all get together and move on.”
Labour candidate Dan Jarvis, widely considered favourite to win on May 3, has already been heavily involved in efforts to bring about a Yorkshire-wide devolution deal. If elected on the Friday, he said, on the Tuesday he would meet with the local council leaders, before later that week meeting with Communities Secretary Sajid Javid to “plot a course that moves us forward in South Yorkshire”.
“I don’t think this is about mediation, it is about leadership”, said the Barnsley MP and former paratrooper.
“It is about electing a mayor who has the credibility and the clout to work with the four leaders of the local authorities, and demonstrate to them that it is in their shared interest to reach a good agreement amongst ourselves that we can take to national government and get on with the business of drawing down money and powers.”
The final candidate to speak, accountant and former college deputy principal Naveen Judah, representing South Yorkshire Save Our NHS, took issue with Mr Jarvis’s use of the word “clout”, arguing that this sounded like the mayor would use power to achieve their aims. “I think we have to be more consultative and more together in our approach.”
As someone who would come to the table without any preconceived notions and making their decisions on evidence rather than “ideology, dogma or tribalism”, he said he would be able to get local leaders to trust him and co-operate.
Six out of the seven mayoral candidates were present, with only David Allen of the English Democrats absent. Over the course of the hustings, the candidates were asked about improvements to local bus services (one of the few areas in which the mayor is currently due to have any powers), rising levels of homelessness, closing the gender pay gap and boosting the profile of South Yorkshire.
But hanging over the 80-minute debate was the reality that, without a breakthrough on devolution talks, the ability of the mayor to effect real change will be severely impaired.
Andrew Carter, chief executive of Centre for Cities, signed off by observing that the success of the mayor was a vital issue for the region to grapple with. “Do vote in a couple of weeks time and tell your friends to vote as well”, he urged the audience.
“It is really important that we get a big turn-out, as big as we possibly can, to give the candidate, whoever it is, and from whatever background, the legitimacy and the credibility to lead the city region.”