One could be forgiven for thinking that the new mayor for South Yorkshire, Oliver Coppard, has been dealt a pretty raw deal since he’s taken office. In the first 100 days he’s had to deal with the prospect of Doncaster Airport closing, a looming crisis with bus services, Powell’s bus company closing, drought and wildfires. The plague of locusts is of course expected next week – although with inflation rising to over 10% they may just choose to go elsewhere.
Coppard marks his first 100 days
To mark his first 100 days in office the new mayor shone a light on some of the stuff that he has been able to do, as well as some of the challenges. He has:
- Refreshed the Combined Authorities assessment of bus franchising
- Started the process to find a new active travel commissioner
- Hosted a mayor’s question time
- Commissioned a plan to address health inequalities
- Met with many local community groups.
The challenges are also pretty easy to document. The looming cost-of-living crisis as inflation rises above 10% will mean more people falling into arrears, or worrying about how to feed their children and keep warm this winter. As Coppard noted, in South Yorkshire “We are more exposed than most to the downsides of the UK’s current economic model, and the success of our region relies more than I would like on choices made in London”.
Turn hope into action
With what’s already on his plate and the challenges coming over the hill, Coppard could be forgiven for being pessimistic. He is anything but.
Part of the optimism lies in the people he is starting to bring in, and the people he is already working with. And an innate belief that he can make a difference. Coppard recently talked to Barack Obama’s former community organiser Marshall Ganz, who told him “You have to hope. And turn that hope into action. What other choice is there?”
In a place like South Yorkshire there is plenty of opportunity for action. Whilst the powers of the mayor may be limited, the opportunities to demonstrate political leadership are endless. Bringing good people together and encouraging them, can sometimes be the start of renewal in a way money cannot buy. It’s less about what the mayor can formally do and rather the potential of what they could do. Coppard told us, “metro mayors like me are a new feature in the political landscape of the UK, and we are still reshaping and distorting the political structures around us”.
Whilstever there is a political vacuum – and let’s face it there is an enormous gaping hole in the centre right now – this leaves a space for people like Coppard to occupy.
Coppard’s priorities for South Yorkshire
Two things are his immediate priority.
First is to develop a narrative and identity for South Yorkshire – something that can act as the glue to bind the constituent parts together and define the place globally. Second is to build something that is cohesive and strong, to weather the political and economic storms:
“My job should not be to try to desperately stitch together a safety net that catches us when we fall, but to create a solid foundation on which the new South Yorkshire can be built; and upon which everybody can stand, equally able to access both opportunity and support.”
Of course, people need more than blind optimism – and hard cash is vital. The South Yorkshire Combined Authority, through the offices of the mayor, will get a £30mn per year investment fund grant, worth £900mn over 30 years. It sounds a lot, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to Manchester’s devolution settlement and goes absolutely nowhere towards buying an airport or a bus company (which is what some want Coppard to do).
“We’ve been shafted … the government’s so-called commitment to levelling up – which supposedly has buses at its heart – is nothing more than an empty promise”.
Bringing South Yorkshire together
Coppard may be being realistic in his expectations that the government will deliver little support going forward.
Instead he recognises that the region is more than the sum of its parts – and he recognises what those parts can achieve if they work together and lobby collectively. In his speech on Tuesday he mentioned just some of the individuals striving to make South Yorkshire better – entrepreneur Julie Kenny; Chris Hardy (who manages the S6 foodbank); the founders of Rivelin Robotics; Dave Richards from WanDisco; and the team at Baby Basics, to name but a few.
In the absence of a substantive devolution settlement, Coppard has to believe in the power of good people trying to make a difference and the effect that good political leadership can have.
The power of someone to argue the toss, to fight for the region and to show decisive leadership is actually worth quite a lot. As witnessed with the PPE procurement scandal, throwing money at something doesn’t always lead to better outcomes if the effective leadership is missing (other than lining the pockets of shareholders). And in the absence of effective national governance, the need for local leadership becomes critical. Or as Coppard said:
“When the government in London is so negligent, so absent, local leadership becomes even more necessary, and comes even more sharply into focus”.
Gaslighting the North?
He has written to the prime minister offering to work with him in partnership on some of the big challenges facing our region – unsurprisingly he’s had no response. “I worry that the government seems intent on doing little more than gaslighting those of us who live in the north”, says Coppard.
In the meantime, he has plenty to get his teeth into and some of it is long overdue – not least, challenging the decades of health inequalities across the region. He may not have the formal powers to intervene, but he knows what needs to be done – or rather, he knows who knows.
The first 100 days have been challenging – the next year will be that with bells on, given the precariousness of the economy. Yet Coppard remains upbeat – “I know we can restore the pride, the purpose and the prosperity of South Yorkshire”. And for the moment we all have to believe him, because without that hope what other choice is there?