“Uniquely, Sheffield's dividing line runs directly through the city like the Berlin Wall”

Beech Hill, Broomhill, Sheffield. Image: 02Vallencel/Wikimedia Commons.

When media types talk about Sheffield as a hyper-creative, culturally left-field ‘Bristol of the North’ (or a Leipzig of the West), they’re talking about Sheffield A and not Sheffield B.

Sheffield A is a healthy, wealthy and leafy mix of greens, golf courses and gastropubs stretching from Fulwood and Ranmoor in the west to Nether Edge, Meersbrook and Dore in the south. This is the city that made international headlines in recent months with a campaign to protect its street trees from an incompetent and complacent council.

Sheffield B is an adjacent but almost entirely unconnected city running down the Don from Upperthorpe to Hillsborough, up to Ecclesfield in the north and stretching to Tinsley, Attercliffe, Darnall and Gleadless Valley in the east. It is a place economically characterised by poverty, lack of opportunity, low-skilled work, poor quality housing stock and even poorer public transport.

Uniquely for a British city, where pockets of deprivation are usually nestled uncomfortably between well-to-do suburbs, Sheffield’s dividing line runs directly through the city like the Berlin Wall. How did this happen?

The consensus opinion seems to be that the poorer side of the city is centred around the steel mills, factories and associated workers’ housing that doubled Sheffield’s population many times over from the Industrial Revolution right up until the decline of the steel industry in the 1980s.

The wealthier half, much of it dating from the turn-of-the-century, represents the flight of the managers and mill owners from the noise and smog of Blake’s “dark satanic mills”. The rich ensconced themselves in an enclave high above their employees, literally: Sheffield A is significantly hilly, particularly the parts that border the Peak District to the west. The spacious Victorian houses often feature spectacular views across the seven hills.

(Of course, this invisible border isn’t fixed forever. The formerly industrial area of Kelham Island has been transformed by the forces of gentrification, its proximity to the centre ensuring that its redbrick warehouses have been repurposed as gin bars, food courts and pricey flats for single professionals.)

Despite the best efforts of the pitiful privatised bus service, it is possible to cross from one city to the other. In 2013, the ‘Fairness On The 83’ project found that average life expectancy falls by 7.5 years for men and almost 10 years for women along a bus route that runs from Ecclesfield in the north to Ecclesall in the south, right across the divide. In the same year, the Sheffield Fairness Commission reported that “a baby girl born and who lives her life in one part of the city can expect to live, on average, almost 10 years longer than a similar baby girl born and living her life about four miles away, by virtue of nothing more than the socio-economic circumstances and area she was born into”. Remember, this is in one of the richest countries in the world.

We know from the work of Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level that unequal societies perform worse on almost every social metric. They’re unhealthier, unhappier and less educated, with higher rates of mental illness, property crime, obesity, infant mortality and teenage pregnancy. Their work shows that it’s not just poorer people who suffer: even the well-off do worse in societies with higher rates of economic inequality.


Sheffield has recently been labelled the ‘low pay capital’ of the UK, but you wouldn’t know that from poking around the leafy suburb of Hallam – Nick Clegg’s former constituency – which is one of the wealthiest in the entire country. The result of this division is like a real life version of China Miéville’s The City & the City. The richer half of the city don’t even see their poorer fellow citizens, as they would in London or Manchester, where disadvantaged areas like Tower Hamlets and Southwark rub shoulders with the moneyed comfort of Islington and Greenwich.

t may be cynical, but when I hear people talking up Sheffield as “the largest village in England” I sometimes wonder if what they really like about the city is that they can effectively reside in a gated community, living day-to-day without ever entering Sheffield B. Even the city centre is segregated to some degree, with the boutiques and bookshops of Division Street and the Peace Gardens forming a marked contrast to Waingate and The Wicker, two shopping streets which appear to been consigned to a barely managed decline.

The lack of interaction between these parallel cities goes some way to explaining the shock that reverberated around Sheffield A when the city as a whole voted to leave the European Union, 51 per cent leave to 49 per cent remain. For the people on the right side of the line, it hadn’t even crossed their minds that over half of their fellow citizens had been left behind. It’s a tale of two cities.

 
 
 
 

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.