Sheffield: The beauty of small in a region getting bigger
Sheffield is a city of makers, of ‘little mesters’ in workshops and studio complexes dotted around the city’s villages. But can Little Sheffield fit with the ‘big’ economic picture the city region is developing?
In Portland Works, old and new industry – and capitalism and post-capitalism – rub up alongside each other. The former works building where Sheffield’s stainless steel was first made is now a designated employment zone owned by the local community.
From Andy Cole, who has been forging tools here since he was 12 using 19th century equipment, to the Hackers and Makers Collective playing with 3D printers, its tenants span the spectrum of economic history, and, according to some, hold the keys to the city’s economic future.
Portland Works is a classic example of Sheffield’s Little Mesters tradition, which propelled the city into the frontline of the industrial revolution. Hundreds of self-employed craftsmen and women rented small workshops around the city centre, and earned their wages by specializing in a particular stage of the production process, be it grinding, forging or finishing, fulfilling cutlery or tool contracts for larger manufacturers. Even after the big steel factories began arriving, the tradition of Little Mesters continued, and it lives on in the city today, with a new generation of small businesses and studio workers.
In the Soar Works Enterprise Centre in Parson Cross, in the north of the city, glaziers, artists and national charities share an office building designed to help traders interact and collaborate. At Sum Studios a creative community has grown in a former school building in Heeley. The Roco Creative Coop has recently opened its doors to fulfil demand for studio spaces.
‘Sheffield is a maker city.
It’s not a selling city like Manchester’.
The work of these small manufacturers and cultural businesses is often as precarious as it was for the Little Mesters. Many of the studios and small businesses scattered around the city are run by one person and are unlikely to grow. In Portland Works the forging and cutlery making traditions that survive will likely die with their owners. In Sum Studios, some design businesses cater primarily for London-based clients.
But, as Vanessa Toumlin, director of city and cultural engagement at Sheffield University says, culture and the ‘maker’ mentality are an important part of the city’s economy and sense of itself. Sheffield University is planning a Year of Making in 2016, to celebrate the energy and creativity of the city’s workshop culture.
‘Sheffield is a maker city’, she says. ‘It’s not a selling city like Manchester. The city has to find that out to make it focus.’
Indeed Sheffield is the only place in the UK to have its own trademark, Made in Sheffield.
Elsewhere in the city, Gareth Roberts from Regather is showing the importance of small economics through the concept of ‘Little Sheffield’, building community economic development, and celebrating small, organic neighbourhood level growth.
Helping the bottom up join the top down
This vision of Sheffield as a city of small makers and of ‘little’ economic development is perhaps at odds with a parallel agenda that is emerging in the city, focused on size, price and regional strength.
The Sheffield city region recently signed up to a devolution agreement that will see the city combined with its nine local authority neighbours – Barnsley, Bassetlaw, Bolsover, Chesterfield, Derbyshire Dales, Doncaster, North East Derbyshire, and Rotherham – to take control over jobs, skills and transport.
A growth plan for the region aims to create 70,000 new private sector jobs and 6,000 new businesses over the next decade, focused on advanced manufacturing and new high speed rail links. There are plans to make the Sheffield city region the best start-up zone in the country and to grow existing businesses and exports.
The big and little economic agendas on the table are not necessarily in opposition but there is a sense among many in the city that Sheffield and its region need a different kind of economic development to that of neighbouring Manchester, one that builds on its history and heritage rather than rolling the fortunes of a diverse set of places into a single economic entity.
A ‘glass floor’ prevents the big and the top down from understanding
and engaging fully with small and community level activities.
Oliver Coppard, who stood as the Labour candidate for Sheffield Hallam in the general election, says that the city region model sweeps aside the strong sense of pride of place that exists. ‘This model puts economic growth on a pedestal but fails to understand people’s motivations for living somewhere. Places like Barnsley will be turned into travel to work areas, breaking down centuries of heritage and history.’
At the Activating Local Alternative Economies event, run by New Start, NEF, CLES and the Sheffield First Partnership in the city in early December a strong desire was expressed to draw together the top-down and the bottom-up strategies for the city, to spread wealth more evenly and to help the city and its region grow in a way that works with the grain of the place and the people that live there.
Gareth Roberts used the metaphor of the ‘glass floor’, that prevents the big and the top down from understanding and engaging fully with small and community level activities. This in turn is mirrored by the ‘glass ceiling’, that stops the small from moving beyond the niche. He called on Sheffield’s leadership, as well as reaching down, to look to organizations that are developing organic local economic development and to help them to reach up.
Community economic development could be the bridge between the two, as could an effort to network the city more. In an interview with New Start Vanessa Toumlin describes her role in the city as ‘helping the bottom up join with the top down’.
‘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.
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.