April is the anniversary of the start of operations of the six metropolitan councils, including West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire, that existed from 1974 to 1986. John Cornwell, the former deputy leader of South Yorkshire County Council, recalls the short, but controversial, 12-year history of that county council.
The life and times of South Yorkshire County Council
The short life of the South Yorkshire County Council was a busy, productive one as well as seeing its fair share of controversy. The SYCC (they never used the title metropolitan) was first elected in 1973 and given a year to play itself in, while establishing its staff, buildings and equipment.
It boasted that “it started life without even a paper clip”, had no existing County Hall to slot into, unlike West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council at Wakefield, and to some extent had a clean sheet of paper on which to write its policies.
The creation of metropolitan counties
The metropolitan counties were a major part of the Local Government Reorganisation Act of 1972, introduced by Edward Heath’s Conservative government, after years of wrangling about how best to reform local government to meet the changed economic and demographic circumstances of the late 20th century.
The existing system was 80 years old having been largely created by the parliamentary Acts of 1888 and 1894. The primary aim of the reorganisation was to create viable areas for efficient local government, while at the same time retaining their responsiveness to the local communities that elected them.
Out went the numerous urban district councils and rural district councils, the unelected aldermen and the unitary county boroughs, like Hull, Leicester and Nottingham, who saw their powers and functions severely reduced and handed to their county councils.
One of the most controversial new arrangements was the creation in six English conurbations of the metropolitan counties that would create an upper tier of local government above the country’s largest cities, including Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Leeds and Sheffield. These cities considered themselves quite capable of running all the functions of local government as they had been doing since the 1888 Act.
The failure of the Tory Trojan horse
As they were usually, if not permanently, Labour controlled, they saw the new metropolitan counties as a Tory Trojan horse to gain some permanent political control over the most heavily populated towns and cities, by dragging in the surrounding rural areas to offset the Labour vote in their heartland industrial urban centres.
If this was the plan, it failed spectacularly in the May 1973 elections for the new metropolitan county councils, who all returned a Labour majority. None more so than in South Yorkshire where the election produced an overwhelming Labour victory with 82 Labour councillors out of 100 seats.
Led by Sir Ron Ironmonger, lately the leader of Sheffield City Council, they had a radical manifesto ready to go, centred on transport, employment and improving the environment. Specifically, they wanted to improve public transport, challenge the efficacy of urban motorways, clear slag heaps and rectify the disastrous environmental detritus of two centuries of heavy industry and mining.
The councillors also decided to base themselves in Barnsley, setting up their ‘County Hall’ in newly built offices in the centre of town, a decision that was not well received in Sheffield, England’s fourth largest city.
Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire
The SYCC became closely identified with a cheap bus fares policy, where, by the simple expedient of not raising fares at a time of rampant inflation, it soon had the cheapest in the UK. But there was more to SYCC’s transport policy than just cheap adult fares.
Schoolchildren could travel anywhere for 2p, pensioners travelled free, bus lanes were created, and pedestrianisation of shopping precincts completed. But it was cheap fares that were singled out for attention by both supporters and opponents of the policy.
The willingness of the SYCC to defy not just the Labour government of Jim Callaghan over cheap fares, but later a much more dangerous opponent in Mrs Thatcher, earned the council the sobriquet “the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire”. Labour members wore the title with great pride, although it may not have been the best slogan for attracting inward investment from British and foreign businesses.
However, for a while, the SYCC was the toast of Labour local authorities, and many, like Livingstone’s Greater London Council, saw it as a model when considering their own urban traffic and transport problems.
In the 1977 English county council elections, SYCC was one of only two metropolitan councils to remain Labour controlled (62 percent of the council). This was seen as an endorsement by the public of the cheap fares policy, as well as the other improvements the council had achieved.
SYCC had encouraged new forms of policing sensitive to communities’ needs and concerns. It had become responsible for all of the county’s roads, building many much-needed bypasses and undertaking highway improvements, while abandoning the plans for a major urban motorway running through the centre of Sheffield. It started the planning for super tram, and developed, and then opened, Rother Valley Country Park.
The council also brought ballet and opera to a county starved of them – the Royal Shakespeare Company performed in a hall in Wath, and the Royal Ballet and English National Opera in a huge temporary theatre in Norfolk Park, Sheffield.
In the council’s final term of office (after the 1981 election – Labour 82 percent again) it concentrated its energies on innovative forms of job creation (the Northern Racing College at Doncaster was an SYCC project) to offset the ravages to the industry of the county, caused by the policies of the Thatcher government.
Thatcher 1: SYCC 0
When Thatcher defeated the Argentines in the Falklands, enabling her to win the 1983 election, it wasn’t just General Galtieri and the Belgrano that were sunk. She now felt confident enough to turn on her ‘enemies’ at home, including Labour local authorities, especially the GLC which she decided to abolish. She also slung the six metropolitan counties (all now Labour again) into the sacrificial pot.
SYCC put up a three-year fight to survive but in the end the council went out of existence on 31 March 1986. For several decades, SYCC and the other metropolitan counties were airbrushed from history. It seemed its only legacy was the actual geographical concept of a South Yorkshire county.
The county still officially existed with its own lord lieutenant but without a county council. Yet its presence had become so well established that its singular identity was accepted by so many of the public, unlike the hostility shown to Humberside or Avon, also new counties created in 1974.
Who now remembers the sprawling West Riding that was always an anomaly to many, because it included northern rural areas close to the Lake District, while in the south it encompassed a quite different and distinct world of mining villages and industrial towns?
South Yorkshire Combined Authority will rise again
There is a postscript to the SYCC’s story. In recent years, the government has been keen to set up city regions with elected mayors. When the Sheffield City Region was proposed and came to fruition, former councillors and officers of the old South Yorkshire County Council noted the similarity of the functions and the coterminous boundaries with some degree of resentful irony.
However, the name Sheffield City Region was never going to be acceptable to Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham and it is now proposed that after the forthcoming local elections in May, the City Region will change its name to the South Yorkshire Combined Authority.
Perhaps an overdue recognition that the metropolitan counties were the way forward and 40 years of progress were lost by Mrs T’s spiteful action in abolishing them in 1986.
WHAT DID THATCHER EVER DO FOR US?
Here’s to the old SYCC
Slain in its prime by Mrs T,
Our bus fares then cost next to nowt
Did we deserve to be slung out?
Led by bluff Roy and bold Sir Ron
Who gave us much to dwell upon,
We counted lampposts, tested prams
Dug up our streets for Super Trams.
Cleared ugly slag heaps by the score
Built roads and bridges without flaw
Within a tent we offered Ballet
Sailed sturdy yachts at Rother Valley.
Protected people from dud goods,
Fought fires and crime and planted woods.
If we were such a paradigm
How come the b*stards called out time,
They sent us on our disparate way
—At least we’re back again today.
So raise your glass and hold it high
South Yorkshire County never died.
J C Cornwell, March 2021