Sheffield: The beauty of small in a region getting bigger

rare and racy
The Rare and Racy bookshop in the Devonshire Quarter of Sheffield, now approved for demolition

‘Councils tricked into the mindset of depression’

Bridging the gaps between big and small and forging a new vision for the city is, however, easier than it sounds for a city under pressure to both cut and grow at the same time.

Delegates at the event spoke of the challenges for a city with a low wage and low skills base to become the strong regional player that is envisioned; the lack of a coherent strategy around what an alternative ‘good growth’ might look like is hampering a more progressive route.

The city’s two universities have stepped up to the mark since austerity hit, and are bringing new energy and vision to its leadership. The bolshy socialism and fiery independence of the city that was known as the capital of the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire in the 1980s can still be found in its long standing community organisations, the creativity of its people, and in the semi-independent ‘villages’ that are scattered on the city’s seven hills.

But as the council is hollowed out by cuts and hamstrung by the emerging city region agenda and its focus on traditional economic growth, it is struggling to find ways to allow that independence and new forms of civic leadership to steer a new social and economic vision.

Community organisations in the city say that they are fighting for their survival as they are forced into ever more competitive contracts to monetise their work and justify their worth. Development trust organisations spoke of how the city’s assets are being sold off and handed over to communities in a haphazard way. A large swathe of the city centre looks likely to be handed over to a private developer while demolition of a street of independent shops has been approved. And while there is a buzz in the centre, the swathes of hinterland that surround the city are often left out of the picture.

‘Austerity is allowing councils to be tricked into the mindset of depression,’ one community leader said. ‘Everything is being driven by price rather than value’.

Articulating a citizen-friendly ‘good growth’ model

Sheffield people are known for ‘saying things as they are’ and there is an honesty and transparency to the debate going on in the city as it wrestles to define itself amid the rush to devolve and the pressure to make cuts.

Council representatives say they are frustrated by the narrow idea of economic development being presented by the local enterprise parternship and want to steer a course of ‘good’ growth. Community organisations are vocal about not wanting to be ‘made to compete’ for an ever-diminishing slice of funds, but to be part of public-social partnerships that steer and guide the city’s future.

The council pledged to lead more conversations around

articulating a citizen friendly ‘good growth’ model in the city.

The council has a sense about what the future could be and is dipping its toes in the new water, setting up workers co-ops and working with supermarkets on local labour agreements. It has asked for help from its universities who are embedding a more networked and experimental culture in the city, and it recognises the challenge it has ahead.

bigboulderfestival
The Big Boulder Festival in Sheffield celebrates arts, music and community and is held in the Heeley People’s Park

As one council representative said: ‘We need ‘Big Sheffield’ to have a shared understanding and aspiration to move on from the traditional model of growth. It’s a big challenge but we have capacity and commitment in the city to do it. We need a different form of leadership in terms of thinking about the economy.’

During the event in the city the council pledged to lead more conversations around articulating a citizen friendly ‘good growth’ model in the city, ‘building on the history of cooperation and radicalism in Sheffield’. It plans to hold an event in 2016 to showcase projects that are putting that vision into practice.

One of the conversations could look at how the council – and the city – could do more to enable the social sector, through social-public partnerships around the care, food and energy sectors for example or by helping them to take over and manage assets. There could be a discussion about how the ‘big’ can be disrupted when it is not working in the interests of people, be it the power of supermarkets or city centre development. And another about how the ‘small’ can become more of a force.

Austerity is difficult for every city, but for post-industrial, paternalistic cities it is a particular challenge. Sheffield is feeling its way towards a new future in which its big institutions enable and support its people and their ideas to flourish and grow.

Clare Goff is editor of New Start magazine
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