[Note from BenIndy Contributor Elizabeth Patterson: I appreciate and support the need for tax increases as Benicia council wrings its hands over the budget. The long, long staff letter and follow-up postcard is all about cutting and traditional development of the 20th century. Without a vision of hope, why would anyone have confidence that the future is bright for our historic city with treasures and character unlike any other city? And, the Industrial Park was a brilliant idea until it wasn’t (meaning the dependence on fossil fuel refining). Over the years some people in Benicia have offered a vision of being a green gateway into Solano County. What has been done to realize that? Reading this interview of a Mayor in Sheffield, England illustrates how a city with inspired leadership for the 21st century can attract new manufacturing and industrial activity that meet the needs of this century. Investing in getting battery manufacturing established in Benicia as one of the few large industrial and manufacturing places in the Bay Area should be embraced with a little risk taking. Where is the vision for prosperity? Why are development decisions that increase the city’s operating and maintenance needs the only option presented by staff? Where is the citizen’s academy or blue-ribbon task force of 50 or so people who are demographically representative of the whole region, who together will help gather information to understand what trade-offs could or should look like and how we can all benefit from embracing the future. As the Sheffield Mayor said, ” I’m determined to make sure that we’re doing this with our community, not to our community.”]
To replace decaying 19th century industries, the region around Sheffield lures high-tech manufacturing from McLaren supercars to Boeing airplane parts.
The steel that fed England’s industrial revolution and powered its rise to a global empire came from a region in its northern hills, where iron and abundant coal deposits combined with sweeping rivers to create an ideal environment for steelmaking. That region, anchored by the city of Sheffield, is now looking to create a new industrial revolution.
Sheffield is known as “Steel City” thanks to those historical roots. It’s the largest city in a region known as South Yorkshire, but the days of industrial dominance are long gone. Today, the region is grappling with the impacts of deindustrialization that have plagued parts of developed economies around the world. Now, its 42-year-old mayor wants to revive the region’s past by attracting business and making South Yorkshire the epicenter of advanced manufacturing.
Oliver Coppard took office in 2022, becoming the second mayor of the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority (its first was elected in 2018), which includes the cities of Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley, sitting some 170 miles north of London. The authority was created with a goal of developing and growing the regional economy, while giving the cities a coordinated platform from which to lobby higher levels of government.
His goal is to leverage the region’s industrial roots and connect it with next-generation manufacturing companies, while ensuring it is not left behind again as the world shifts away from fossil fuels.
It’s already attracting investments. In March, Ultimate Battery Co., which makes batteries out of sustainable materials, announced plans to place its headquarters and 500 new jobs in the region. Then, in July, South Yorkshire was named the UK’s first investment zone for advanced manufacturing. An initial £80 million ($101 million) has been promised for skills training, infrastructure and tax relief in an attempt to attract £1.2 billion in private investment and 8,000 jobs. That announcement coincided with a commitment from Boeing Co. to conduct sustainable, lightweight aircraft research in the region. McLaren Automotive also moved some manufacturing for its carbon fiber supercars from Austria to Sheffield.
Coppard grew up in South Yorkshire during the 1980s, giving him a first-hand view of the region’s industrial decline. Just a decade earlier, in the early 1970s, nearly half of the region’s employment was in manufacturing. But by 2011, employment in manufacturing jobs had shrunk to 11%. Replacing those jobs with well-paying alternatives has been a struggle. The unemployment rate in the region is higher than the national average, while wages are £80 a week less.
Boeing’s first European factory opened in Sheffield in 2018, representing the next-era industries the region seeks to attract.Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg
The challenge for Coppard will be ensuring the promised investments actually materialize and provide benefits for local residents. Bloomberg CityLab spoke to Coppard about his vision for the future of South Yorkshire. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
South Yorkshire is going through a period of transition. Can you talk about the challenges facing the region?
South Yorkshire was the home of the industrial revolution. We had a huge steel industry, coal mining industry, right through until the 1980s. And then there was a huge amount of industrial decline. Since then we’ve been recovering.
It’s’s fair to say we are now on the cusp of something pretty special. We’re dealing with issues around transport, health, economy and particularly the economic growth of South Yorkshire. My job is essentially growth.
What’s that growth strategy looked like?
We’re trying to create a regional industrial strategy for South Yorkshire. That essentially means figuring out what we’re good at, and then trying to do more of it. Things like advanced manufacturing, which we are world leading at. We were the first place to mass produce steel, we were the first place to be an advanced manufacturing innovation district and now we’re the UK’s first investment zone.
The investment zone status allows us to focus on that expertise and those recent strengths. We’re trying to lead the world when it comes to advanced manufacturing to the extent that now, if you’re in the advanced manufacturing space globally, and you’re not in South Yorkshire, it’s more of a problem for you than it is for me.
How are you thinking about the future, how do you make sure South Yorkshire isn’t left behind a second time?
The transition to net zero is an opportunity to do that. We know what it’s like to go through an energy transition and when we went through the last one, we didn’t do so well.
So we’re running a citizens’ assembly in South Yorkshire, which is essentially 100 people who are demographically representative of the whole region, who will now work with us to understand what trade-offs could or should look like and how we can all benefit from that transition. I’m determined to make sure that we’re doing this with our community, not to our community.
Has there been opposition to these changes?
The UK is in the middle of quite a difficult political climate. The UK government has been saying for a while that they’re going to level up our country, which meant they were going to put investment into the north of the country just as much as the south (where London is). I don’t think we’ve necessarily come to fruition. That’s a real problem.
We are determined to make sure that we get just as much in investment and support, but some of that we’re going to have to do ourselves. We’re going to make sure that we push forward with our economic growth, with our plans, with our projects in South Yorkshire, with or without the support of the UK government.
Any lessons you’ve taken from other cities or regions?
The work we’re doing with St. Louis — they’re building their advanced manufacturing innovation center on the model that South Yorkshire developed. We’ll work with anybody globally to make sure they’re learning the lessons we have to share, particularly our friends in the United States.
We’ll also listen to the people who are doing things in a different way from us to see if there are lessons there too. This has to be a collaboration, it has to be a sector where we’re learning from people as much as we’re sharing our learning with others too. I’m determined we’ll be global leaders, but global leaders also have to listen.
Visit BelieveInBenicia.org to learn more about Benicia’s Resiliency Plan, sign up for updates from Benicia City Manager Mario Giuliani, and join the effort to help shape Benicia’s future. Add your voice.