The seismic events of COVID and Brexit will have a lasting impact on people and businesses across South Yorkshire for decades to come. Next year, with the vaccine being rolled out across the country, we can look forward to seeing our family and friends without restrictions again. However, we have a herculean task of rebuilding our economy and society. Crucially, this must not be a slow and steady return to broken status quo. 2021 must be the year we fix the foundations and start the job of building back better.
Global events like the pandemic and Brexit are often filtered through the Westminster news agenda, but it’s at a local level they meet people’s lives and their reality is felt. That’s why the response has to be local too. In South Yorkshire, we will continue to use our powers and resources to turnaround the prospects of people, businesses and places across South Yorkshire. COVID has made our task even more challenging, and we will deploy our resources wisely to kick start recovery and renewal.
That’s why despite all the challenges we face, I believe 2021 is when people in our region will begin to see the difference devolution can make to their lives. My vision is for a stronger, greener, fairer South Yorkshire and that is the compass that will guide my plan for recovery and renewal. My priorities will be leading our economic fight back from COVID, kick starting our ambitious programme to reach net zero emissions and ensuring the pandemic does not stifle people’s life chances and opportunities.
With over £250m secured from government, which we will use for transport, housing and infrastructure projects in our region, we can start the task with optimism amidst an otherwise gloomy economic outlook. This, alongside our devolution deal, means 2021 is the year we start to deliver.
Our devolved gainshare money will support people back into work through our Kickstart programme and help young people and businesses secure the apprenticeships they need. We’ll invest in our businesses so they can access the support they need to adapt and grow. Inward investment after Brexit is crucial for our prosperity, and I’ll be leading efforts to drum up trade for South Yorkshire, starting by hosting a virtual delegation from India. As COVID restrictions ease, I will deliver another manifesto commitment to support South Yorkshire’s visitor economy, with a new campaign to encourage people to visit our region and get our leisure, culture and heritage sector back on its feet. We will make clear that South Yorkshire is open for business.
We will act on climate change and start our journey to reach net zero emissions by 2040. A better public transport system is at the heart of this and a swathe of schemes from the £166m Transforming Cities Fund I secured from Government will get underway. It means people will see improvements in our town centres for walking and cycling, revitalised and better train stations and new bus routes which will make choosing public transport the norm. A project close to my heart, the Northern Forest, will see more trees planted through the South Yorkshire Nature Partnership.
If we are to level up, this must not only be about the economy, but opportunity. We will put our new Adult Education Budget skills powers to use to help people back to work, so they can find and get on at work, particularly in sectors of our economy which have skills gaps. I’ll be working with our health leaders to understand how we can address the underlying inequality and conditions which made people more vulnerable to COVID.
All this is possible because of devolution, allowing South Yorkshire to shape its destiny. However, we cannot do this alone. While we will use every pound and every lever available to us, without a fundamental shift from government, we will only be able to fiddle at the margins of the challenges we face. Entering their second year of office, the government’s record on levelling up has been patchy at best. The government has promised a Devolution White Paper, where I’ll set out how South Yorkshire can unlock prosperity for the North, if given the meaningful tools to do so. It’s time to stop tinkering and start transforming.
As we approach the end of 2020, we must remember we are not through the worst of the pandemic. Households mixing over Christmas will undoubtedly lead to a rise in cases, more people needing hospital treatment, and sadly, lives lost. It’s vital we continue to stick to the rules to ensure we protect South Yorkshire’s hospitals and NHS staff, and prevent more lives and livelihoods from being lost.
We must stay the course, then the job of rebuilding can begin. Whether you’re looking to improve your skills, find an apprenticeship, see your business grow, I want everyone across South Yorkshire to know that I’m fighting for you as we look to emerge from this crisis even stronger. It’s my great privilege to represent you – in good times and bad – and in 2021, I’ll be working around the clock to ensure we can enjoy a happier, healthier and more prosperous future. I wish you and your loves ones all the very best for the New Year.