Is Sheffield falling behind?

An engraving of Sheffield in its Victorian heyday. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

Yesterday, I was in Sheffield, to attend a Centre for Cities (CfC) debate on what the priorities should be for the new metro mayor that the region is – the fall of George Osborne notwithstanding – expected to elect next year.

It was my first time in the city, and what struck me about the place was that it does not feel like a boom town. Visit Manchester or Birmingham or Liverpool these days, and there's an intangible big city energy in the air: some mixture of glossy property development and artisan cafes that tells you that this is a place where Things Are Happening. Sheffield, despite its abundant charms – not least the beauty of the surrounding landscape – seemed to lack that energy.


This is entirely subjective, of course, and I was in town for all of 10 hours. I probably wouldn't written it down at all, were it not for the fact that, at the CfC event, speaker after speaker talked about their fear that the city was falling behind.

And the rival whose performance they looked longingly on at wasn't London, but Leeds.

So is all this just paranoia? Or is Sheffield really struggling compared to its northern neighbour? Let's look at some graphs. (They'll all expand if you click.)

On the most basic measure – population – that certainly isn’t true. The CfC dataset uses Primary Urban Areas - collections of councils that make up a city's economic footprint. As a result, Bradford is a separate city to Leeds, which obviously skews the results.

Nonetheless, on these definitions, at least, Sheffield is bigger than Leeds, and becoming more so:

And yet – this is not a good sign – it has significantly fewer jobs:

Sheffield is also underperforming on the total labour taxes generated per job...

...and the total economy taxes (a broader measure, which includes capital, consumption and property taxes, too).

It’s behind on earnings, too. While Leeds has shown some increase, Sheffield is all but flat-lining:

It's GVA, a total measure of the size of the city's economy, is way behind that of Leeds:

All these figures are connected, of course: Sheffield has a weaker economy than Leeds, which means fewer jobs relative to its population. That gives employees less bargaining power, which means lower earnings and lower taxes, too.

Expand the graph to include all five of the big northern cities, and the pattern broadly seems to hold. On the tax measure, Sheffield has gone from being fourth in a relatively tightly bunched group, to lagging way behind:

That probably reflects what's going on in earnings:

That said, on GVA, it's doing better than Liverpool:

On total jobs, too. (I've excluded Manchester from this one, just because it's so much bigger than the other four that it renders the graph unreadable.)

"Left behind" is a phrase we're hearing a lot, in the wake of Brexit, and it's not always as meaningful as one might like. It's also worth remembering that Sheffield's economy is a great deal stronger than many of the smaller towns and cities that dot the M62 corridor.

But it seems clear, at least, that Sheffield is struggling compared to Leeds. It remains to be seen whether electing a metro mayor – a figure Leeds is not currently set to have – will change that.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.