What did we learn from the Sheffield City Region mayoral hustings?

Sheffield by night. Image: Benedict Hunjan/Wikimedia Commons.

The week before last, the Centre for Cities and local Chambers of Commerce held the first hustings for the Sheffield City Region mayoral election with all the leading candidates, focusing in particular on their plans for the local economy (Dave Allen of the English Democrats could not attend).

The big attendance at Meadowhall showed the considerable appetite from business leaders and the wider community to hear about the plans of the prospective mayors, in what has been a low-key campaign so far.

The Sheffield City region mayoral election is unique, having been delayed by 12 months because of disagreements over the geography of the city regions, while six other mayoral elections took place.  But two other factors made these hustings stand out.

First, half of the candidates present – Dan Jarvis (Labour), Mick Bower (Yorkshire), Rob Murphy (Green) – are running for a position they would seek to abolish as soon as possible, in favour of a whole Yorkshire devolution deal (with or without a mayor).

Second, disagreements between members of the combined authority (made up of Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield) – and with the government – mean that the public consultation needed to unlock the powers and resources on offer as part of the city region’s devolution deal has not yet taken place.

The upshot is that whoever is elected on Thursday will have next-to-no powers and funding until they bring together combined authority colleagues to overcome the procedural hurdles needed to rubber-stamp the devolution deal. Only then will they gain the full powers and funding on the table: £900m investment over 30 years, a significant share of the £1.7bn ‘Transforming Cities Fund’, and considerable powers over skills, transport and housing.

Working with local leaders to unlock powers and funding 

It was not surprising, then, that the first question asked at the event (from a representative of the Chamber) was: How would the candidates help the combined authority to work together, and how could businesses help?

Hannah Kitching (Liberal Democrats) called for independent external mediation to overcome longstanding internal disputes and promised to be an honest broker on the combined authority. She also said that she would make the argument that “you don’t have to dim anyone else’s lights to make yours shine brighte”’ – referencing concerns that Sheffield has been prioritised in the combined authority, particularly over the move of the local HS2 station from Meadowhall to Sheffield city centre.

The Conservatives’ Ian Walker would seek to get business voices involved in a revived South Yorkshire Forum. He would not rule out a Yorkshire-wide deal but would make the case for getting the money on offer now flowing.

Rob Murphy of the Greens argued that the closed nature of the combined authority allowed leaders to behave badly, and that opening up the whole system to greater public scrutiny would shame leaders into a greater collaboration.

Mick Bower of the Yorkshire party would join those calling for a Yorkshire-wide deal on the combined authority, and use the mayor’s mandate to pressure the government to agree to this objective.

A number of candidates questioned whether Dan Jarvis, as a Labour candidate and an MP in the area, would be able to mediate effectively between Labour-controlled councils.

His response was that, for those very reasons, he is best-placed to work with the councils – and that what was lacking was leadership, not mediation. Jarvis argued that his clout and credibility with local leaders and Sajid Javid (Housing, Communities & Local Government secretary) would get the process moving forward within the week.

Naveen Judah, candidate for South Yorkshire Save Our NHS, promised to bring no bias or dogma, and offer impartial and transparent leadership to build the trust needed to bring the combined authority together and unlock new powers.

Improving bus services

Buses were the focus of questions on transport, due to declining numbers on local services and the high number of people in the city region using private vehicles. The new mayor will have considerable powers to act on this issue alone thanks to the Bus Services Act.

Ian Walker wants fully integrated ticketing and more dedicated bus lanes to improve services and speeds. Mick Bower would push for better coordination of routes, promising to rationalise services in well-covered areas to provide services elsewhere.

Hannah Kitching vowed to address the difficulty of travelling between local authorities via bus, describing it as “nigh on impossible” in places.

Dan Jarvis would use regulatory powers to improve services, before eventually moving to franchising and offering special concessionary fares and integrated ticketing.

Finally, Rob Murphy reiterated his long-standing support for bus franchising and promised to bring it in as soon as possible, to enable greater cross-subsidy between profitable and less profitable but socially valuable routes.

Maximising Sheffield City Region’s profile

One of the key roles of the new mayor will be to raise the profile of the city region on the national and international stage and to attract more investment.

Rob Murphy argued that electing a Green Party candidate would help to attract low carbon investment and show that the city-region has changed course.

For Dan Jarvis, the key is to bolster the city region’s bid to be the new home of Channel 4 and to promote local cultural assets. He would work with ‘Welcome to Yorkshire’ and try to showcase the area’s quality as a place to live and raise a family to attract investors.

Hannah Kitching argued that the city region must overcome what she described as a reputation for being inward-looking. She would place greater focus on supporting small and new firms to expand through introducing a growth hub.

Ian Walker vowed to lead trade missions as mayor and highlighted the need to improve connectivity, skills and training – as well as creating more business parks and infrastructure as the key to attracting investment.

Mick Bower argued that Yorkshire was the brand with the profile to get behind, and promised to show the city region’s outward-looking face by funding a new museum on the site where Sheffield FC (the oldest football club in the world) play.

Naveed Judah argued for a visionary and forward-looking plan to attract global investors to work on artificial intelligence, robotics and environmental challenges.

Skills and the gender pay gap

A member of the Women’s Equality Party asked how candidates would close the gender pay gap and ensure everyone able to contribute to the local economy is rewarded fully. Dan Jarvis promised to appoint a female deputy mayor and show a lead on eliminating the gender pay gap on the Combined Authority. Publishing the gap and increasing public scrutiny would be the policy of Hannah Kitching, who also vowed to act as a role model

For Ian Walker, the key is tackling cultural barriers to women applying to study different subjects. Mick Bower would use procurement to favour local, smaller firms that invest in training, and use these rules to ensure these firms eliminate the gender pay gap.

Citing local skills gap in engineering, one audience member asked how candidates would ensure vocational options are viewed with the same esteem as academic. All candidates agreed on the need to align employer demand with skills provision, and the value of bringing employers into the system to demonstrate available opportunities and the routes to achieve them. Hannah Kitching, Dan Jarvis and Mick Bower each called for more powers to intervene earlier and fund primary and secondary education rather than try to fix issues at 18.

The answers given by the candidates show that they are thinking carefully about the challenges and issues the Sheffield City Region faces, even those who would prefer a Yorkshire-wide devolution deal. To tackle these issues, and to deliver for people across the city region, whoever takes office on 4 May will first need to bring together local leaders – and overcome the disagreements which have delayed this election.

Simon Jeffrey is a policy officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.


How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.