Over the last few years, wherever I’ve been, all over the country, the inevitable ‘Where are you from?’ question is met with amusement when I reply, ‘Doncaster’.
The reactions vary from ‘Passed through there on the train’, to ‘Isn’t that the place where the children’s services are rated as failing?’ and the ever common ‘Isn’t that a rotten borough?’
So, as a Conservative, involved in local politics since 1999, and having stood in many council elections and a Parliamentary election against the green Ed Miliband in 2005, how do you tackle a Mayoral campaign? Especially when the main opponents are Labour and also Peter Davies, the now Independent mayor (ex English Democrat, father of Conservative MP Philip Davies).
To get this over in the campaign though I decided early on that instead of criticising past administrations or been negative a positive approach was required.
The aim of becoming Mayor of the largest borough outside London is surely not to denigrate the town but to push it forward. In my opinion to be Mayor you lead, so the whole campaign and vision for Doncaster began to take shape.
The largest failing within Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council (DMBC) is the lack of control and responsibility. The morale in the Education Service and the Children and Young People’s Service is absolutely shot. Staff recruitment is slowing to such an extent there are 40 vacancies in the adoption section alone. This is at the core of the problem. It is apparent that any policy for young people revolves around altering these departments.
All but one of the town’s secondary schools are now academies. If all the schools in Doncaster were to become academies and were given support to achieve this then the social services side could be taken under the wing of a new enlarged health directorate.
By restructuring the senior management team and the general ethos of the approach to children’s service it would be possible to improve morale and bring some new ideas into the team. One effect of low staffing has been that early intervention and help for parents across all spectrums had broken down. Improved morale, leading to increased staffing would enable enhanced prevention of harm. Helping vulnerable children is better than cleaning up the mess later.
Coupled with the changes to schools I developed a strategy to help groups running after-school clubs. With money saved from a slimmed down council it would be possible to help and even give grants to groups helping young people enrich their lives with extra activities. Surely helping our children enhance their CV and confidence will help them in later life. The entire ethos of my campaign and my thoughts on council services is putting the child at the centre of any policy.
On any UK map Doncaster is central to both the motorway and rail networks so any vision of moving the town forward is linked to improvements in traffic flow and linking Doncaster airport to the transport infrastructure. Any large conurbation requires a fast moving transport network to be successful; in Doncaster with the correct strategic decisions a major transformation can be secured.
With the advent of HS2 the East Coast mainline traffic will decrease. This gives Doncaster the opportunity to put a rail spur into the airport. The benefits from this are vast. Not only will this increase passenger flow to the airport but new exciting ventures with the inland port can be achieved.
Few people realise that Doncaster has a rich history, which has been terribly under-utilised as a unique selling point. Part of my campaign has been to raise the profile of the towns’ major attractions. Every few days on Twitter I’ve been raising the profile of gems such as Tickhill Castle, a residence of King John, and Conisbrough Castle, the setting of Ivanhoe. Or what about the fascinating Brodsworth Hall, with a history that inspired Dickens to write Bleak House.
It doesn’t take long before you realise that you want people to get off the train and visit the attractions across the town. From this, the initial idea of an annual themed market arose. Leeds and Lincoln have successful Christmas markets, so why not Doncaster?
It is pointless competing against existing markets so I settled on an Easter Fair. This could be based on Norman, Viking or Roman themes, alternating every year to keep it fresh. Jousting on town moor would definitely draw crowds.
I believe that the state should help those who are willing to improve their lives. With this in mind the best way to improve the wealth of a town is to increase the number of people in work.
In my vision for Doncaster; the Mayor should facilitate a complete work programme by working with training companies and employers. Applying the carrot approach to supporting long term unemployed get a job, we would offer a benefits extension of one year. Extending this approach to apprentices, it is not too difficult to introduce schemes helping keep young people in work. A tweak of the moped scheme so that the individual eventually owns their bike seems an obvious step to take.
This role of facilitator can be applied to any sector. One in twelve people in Doncaster are either a veteran of the armed services or a close relative. It is the role of the mayor to help the veterans and their families through the transitions programme and health groups. I want Doncaster to go further though and make this a one stop service that is sustainable in the long term. The benefits will be vast as our ex-servicemen are made welcome back into society and no longer fail to reintegrate. This will greatly increase their life chances.
The whole campaign has been designed to be positive and create an atmosphere of possibility in the people of Doncaster. We published our policies twice a week over two months. This keeps the policies fresh and in people’s minds. This was done in conjunction with my Twitter feed, although occasionally the politics line was broken as I referred to my real time job as a dairy farmer. All my policies can be found here.
So if you are in Yorkshire see for yourself how much of a hidden gem Doncaster is. After all it is known as #doncasterisgreat on Twitter!