We have lived through extraordinary times this year.
When Covid took hold in the spring, nobody knew how long the virus would last or how it would affect our society. Until ten months ago, living through a global pandemic was the stuff of history books and disaster movies: now it was happening.
Since then we have faced a test on a scale most of us had forgotten was possible. We have seen the disruption of huge swathes of ordinary life, thousands of businesses forced to close, record unemployment, and millions of children out of school.
From the student struggling with online classes, to the pensioner deprived of contact with their family, we have all paid a price. More than 68,000 people have lost their lives. As we prepare to celebrate, my thoughts go out above all to those who have lost loved ones, but also to everyone who has been affected by this virus, in ways great and small.
In circumstances like these the hope is always that we rise to meet the test – that it brings out the best in us rather than exposing our weaknesses. More than that, we hope it will leave us better than we were.
But none of that is easy. The battle has been in the daily grind, the unglamorous slog of working people getting by and getting on in the face of adversity.
While the exceptions have inevitably attracted more attention, most people followed the rules, and accepted sacrifices to help keep their families and community safe. I’m deeply grateful to the people of South Yorkshire for that – because it is no small thing.
All through the year, displays of strength and compassion gave us hope. Our advanced manufacturing companies helped ensure the country had enough ventilators; textile businesses switched production to life-saving PPE; and in schools, village halls and on kitchen tables, individuals did everything they could to help. It was the very best of South Yorkshire – caring, practical, undefeated.
All of us in the Mayoral team, as well as my parliamentary team, worked exceptionally hard to live up to that example. As the crisis ramped up, we mobilised, alongside our local authorities, to provide support and advice to businesses and individuals.
We secured funding for our bus and tram networks so key workers could get to hospitals and supermarkets during the peak of the pandemic. We negotiated £30m to support our economy, increased our own funding for business support and skills by £16.5m, and gave our councils a £6m boost to help them cope.
We can all take pride in how South Yorkshire responded to the test – but we also have to acknowledge the flaws exposed by the harsh spotlight of the pandemic.
The government’s response was too often inconsistent, rushed, and opaque. It too often marginalised local leaders and communities. Support was too often inadequate, and left too many people fall through the gaps entirely.
But the crisis also highlighted deeper problems, like unacceptable levels of deprivation and the deep inequality between different parts of our country. Even before the pandemic, someone born in the most deprived parts of the UK could expect to live almost 20 years less in good health than someone born in the wealthiest areas.
We must make this crisis a spur to confront those issues, and indeed all the great challenges we face. Even as the pandemic continues, that is what my team and I have been working for.
In the spring we will release our Strategic Economic Plan, setting out how we make South Yorkshire’s economy not just bigger but better over the next 20 years – more inclusive, more productive, more sustainable. In the shorter term, our £1.7billion Renewal Action Plan set out a roadmap for building a stronger, greener and fairer South Yorkshire in the wake of the pandemic. I don’t want us to just recover: I want Covid to spur the transformation we have long been promised.
A key part of that plan is to make our transport fit for the 21st century. The South Yorkshire Bus Review was published in June, and we will deliver its recommendations to make our bus network fit for purpose. In the same month Active Travel Commissioner Dame Sarah Storey and I released ambitious plans to build a network of more than 1000km of walking and cycling routes across South Yorkshire over the next two decades.
Work has already begun on the network with £166million secured through the Transforming Cities Fund in March. New infrastructure is now being built across the region with schemes due to be completed in 2021.
In July, South Yorkshire’s landmark devolution deal was signed into law, unlocking millions of pounds in additional funding and new powers to support jobs and businesses, deliver opportunities for our people and improve transport and public services. We will feel the benefits, from more high-skilled jobs in low-carbon industries to better training and adult education, for decades to come.
In November, almost a year on from the floods that devastated communities across our region and after endless letters, debates and articles pressing the Government to honour its promise of holding a floods summit, I finally met with other South Yorkshire leaders and the Government to agree actions to avoid further destruction from floods. I will continue to pursue this into 2021.
Work has also progressed on South Yorkshire’s transition to net zero by 2040, 10 years before the national target. Climate change is the biggest threat we face. To accelerate our transition and deliver the radical action needed, we need the Government to match our ambition and deliver a Green New Deal for the country.
Covid and climate change both remind us how interconnected we all are. Our departure from the EU mustn’t mean we step back from the world, but work all the harder for peace, justice and development abroad as we do at home. We are a strong country: we have a responsibility to help, especially with access to the new vaccines.
In this season of hope, we can be thankful that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we can expect the crisis to soon be over. As for whether this test makes us a better region, or a better country – that is something we will have to fight for together.