COMMENT: Mayoral candidates need to fight for South Yorkshire - and not just for Sheffield

Hopefuls in the race for the Sheffield City Region mayor took part in the final debate at BBC Radio Sheffield - in association with The Star - this week before the May 3 election. Local Democracy Reporter Andy Done-Johnson was there to follow the action.

Mayoral candidates (from left) David Allen, Mick Bower, Dan Jarvis, Naveen Judah, Hannah Kitching, Rob Murphy and Ian Walker speaking at the debate.
Mayoral candidates (from left) David Allen, Mick Bower, Dan Jarvis, Naveen Judah, Hannah Kitching, Rob Murphy and Ian Walker speaking at the debate.

What was most evident about the latest mayoral debate for Sheffield City Region was that, aside from a couple of candidates, nobody wants the job, or to be more precise, thinks the job should exist.

The seven candidates, who took part in the live debate at BBC Radio Sheffield on Wednesday evening, also couldn’t quite put their fingers on what the role should be - beyond a link to central government or a casting vote between four warring authorities.

Few also spoke for the region - bringing with them a vested interest for Barnsley, for Rotherham, for Sheffield or for Doncaster.

There were also some familiar ‘old chestnuts’ rattled out as well.

“I’m the man for the job. I have the clout to bring everyone together” - Dan Jarvis.

“I will consult cross-party and with the public to find a solution” - Rob Murphy.

“We believe in South Yorkshire and we want it to thrive” - Ian Walker

“This is a really exciting opportunity for South Yorkshire” - Hannah Kitching.

In fairness, only really Mr Walker and Mrs Kitching went on the record as fully pro-Sheffield City Region.

And there lies the real problem, the icing on the cake of the chaos that has dominated the process thus far. A city region that was imposed by central government, that residents didn’t want, or didn’t engage with, and in many ways still haven’t.

Hanging over the whole process is One Yorkshire - the call for all 20 local authorities to combine into a ‘super region’ with a self proclaimed ‘King of the North’ taking residence in a castle in Leeds.

This may explain why only Sheffield and Rotherham stand against it - Sheffield, Yorkshire’s ‘second city’ and ‘poor relative’ to an already wealthier Leeds; Rotherham, as ever, standing firm with the city its people may look closest too.

Mick Bower from The Yorkshire Party - the clue is very much in the title - said he fears Sheffield and Rotherham would end up isolated outside of a bigger, more powerful Yorkshire region.

And unlike both Manchester and Liverpool - which comprise of a central urban sprawl surrounded by a ring of satellite towns - South Yorkshire is more separate, more proud. Doncaster is Doncaster. It has its own identity. Same with Barnsley and Rotherham. These are big, defined places in their own rights. They are not Sheffield.

And what of North East Derbyshire and Bassetlaw? Places that look to Sheffield and also part of the Sheffield City Region, although without a vote and seemingly a voice in next week’s election.

Where would they sit in the One Yorkshire deal - being Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire respectively? Dumped unceremoniously, no doubt.

But, as several candidates trumpeted out during the debate, “Sheffield City Region is the deal on the table.”

It will allow us to “draw down the money and the powers” - whatever they may be.

Dan Jarvis - Labour and Co-operative Party.

Gave a very slick and polished performance. He didn’t stumble over a single word but came under fire for being a member of the party “that had caused this mess in the first place”. He did, however, come across as “having the clout” to bring the four authorities together.

Best line: “We need to get this thing off the ground and running. Once we’re off the ground and running we can come up with something for the whole community.”

Rob Murphy - Green Party

Made a strong play with his ten years of experience representing the Greens on Sheffield City Council and for influencing the ruling Labour cabinet who have brought in a number of key Green policies over the past decade. He was accused of being Sheffield-centric though, and didn’t really come over as a voice for all the region.

Best line: “If you voted for me that would bring a political earthquake to South Yorkshire. That would change everything.”

David Allen - English Democrats

The strongest voice against devolution for South Yorkshire and, in fairness the whole of Yorkshire. He called for an entirely devolved England - as with Scotland and Wales - portraying the government’s city region policy as an elaborate game of divide and rule with Westminster pulling the strings.

Best line: “If that regionalisation of Yorkshire does occur it will be to the high delight of the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish. They will be able to play one region off against another through parliament and extract even more gold from the English exchequer.”

Naveen Judah - South Yorkshire Save Our NHS

Came across as an articulate and knowledgeable business and education leader but found it difficult to step out of the role of a one-issue candidate. He did, however, step out of the shadows when discussing safer ground though - issues around health and social care, and how he would work to improve the lots of failing communities.

Best line: “With the money that comes immediately I would focus on education so the life chances of the child are increased.”

Mick Bower - The Yorkshire Party

Mr Yorkshire gave a strong performance with his “calls a spade a spade” approach to politics. Proud and passionate of his Rotherham roots he made no bones that he feels the Sheffield City Region is a mistake and that all 20 authorities should be pushing for the One Yorkshire deal.

Best line: “We see the future as building South Yorkshire and moving on to an all Yorkshire deal. If we all work together we will have the best of all worlds. And then we’re going to build a wall, and they’re going to pay for it.”

Hannah Kitching - Liberal Democrats

Less a voice for the whole region and more one for those already long-forgotten and long ignored areas of South Yorkshire, she made a lot of her Penistone base. She also came across as successful and focused - a working mum with a background in business, co-running a successful manufacturing firm with her husband.

Best line: “I feel like I’m the only person who actually wants this job. There’s been a lot of talking down of this region and I want to flip that on its head.”

Ian Walker - Conservative Party

The voice of business and growth, he portrayed a vision of a future booming business region with companies almost queueing up to move to or invest in South Yorkshire, and made a strong play as the Sheffield City Region not only being the “deal on the table’ but also the best deal for South Yorkshire.

Best line: “I’m probably the only candidate here to say that I actually believe in South Yorkshire. We need somebody not just on the national stage but on the international stage to push this region.”