Some thoughts on why Sheffield’s economy has struggled

Sheffield. Image: Peter White.

After reading how surprisingly good Liverpool’s economic growth has been over the last 20 years and then why Leeds was such a laggard, I feel we need to talk about Sheffield.

On the graphs of economic growth featured in those earlier articles, Sheffield was bottom of the 12 cities selected, despite having a faster growing population than Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle at the last census. Accused of physical isolation, Sheffield is sat between Manchester, Leeds and Nottingham, in the largest cluster of the cities listed.The city was also recently reported to have the fastest growing house prices in the country. So why is it struggling?

Sheffield may be Britain’s least known or understood large city. To many it’s the epitome of industrial decline, with its derelict steel mills and defunct cutlery factories. More are familiar with this side of the city that faces the M1 motorway and hosts several regeneration projects like the Don Valley Stadium (RIP), the Sheffield Arena (which seats 1,000 less than Leeds’ newer arena) and the Meadowhall shopping centre (actually in the neighbouring borough of Rotherham).

Fewer are familiar with the more economically prosperous south and west of the city, which includes the Sheffield Hallam constituency. Over the last 20 years, the Hallam constituency hosted the greatest number of professionals and a greater proportion of graduates than Oxford and Cambridge. Walking amongst these leafy suburbs, lined by splendid stone Victorian villas, it is difficult to figure out why this idyllic city isn’t booming.

Here are a few suggestions.      

Steel, Cutlery and Coal. The decline in heavy industry and manufacturing has been felt in cities across the North. The more economically successful cities of the last 20 years tend to have a long history of a large commercial and service sector.

Sheffield was built on steel, cutlery and coal – a toxic combination for a 20th century city. Although much of the decline was decades ago, Sheffield continues to have a higher proportion of manufacturing jobs than its more economically successful rivals.

Poor road infrastructure. If you didn’t already know, Sheffield is modelled on Rome and situated on seven hills. The narrow valleys between the hills, which were perfect for providing water power to kick start the Industrial Revolution, get quite easily choked up with traffic.

There is no outer ring road through the adjacent Peak District National Park, and the M1 only serves half the city to move North or South. The three most direct routes to Manchester are single carriage lanes and take hours, despite it being under 40 miles away.  

Poor access to aviation infrastructure. Doncaster Sheffield Airport is situated 18 miles from Sheffield and handles fewer flights than Jersey’s airport. Yorkshire’s largest airport is Leeds-Bradford, which is the wrong side of the West Yorkshire conurbation for Sheffielders: that handles fewer flights than many cities half the size of the West Yorkshire conurbation (Bristol, Edinburgh, Newcastle). Most Sheffielders opt for Manchester Airport, which isn’t particularly easy to get to via road, or rail.


Very poor rail infrastructure. Yes, more poor infrastructure! You would be hard pressed to find a city of similar size with such poor access to transport infrastructure. (Please do write in if you know of one.)

A century ago, Sheffield had two railway lines to Manchester and one was scheduled to have an electrified service, which it finally achieved in 1954. Today you can catch a tram from an out of town shopping centre to the north of the city to an out of town shopping centre to the south east of the city, but you can’t take an electrified train anywhere. The electrified line to Manchester was closed after the Beeching report. Sheffield remains the largest city without an electrified service to London, or indeed anywhere: if and when HS2 arrives if may be situated in Rotherham to cut costs.

The polycentric nature of the Yorkshire urban area. Reviving Owen Bell’s point regarding Leeds’ poor economic performance – where Bristol, Newcastle and Norwich benefit from being regional capitals, Sheffield is overshadowed by not just Leeds but also Manchester and even Nottingham.

Reliance on public sector jobs. Sheffield benefits from hosting some government departments such as the DoE, DWP and up until recently BIS. When austerity hit the Civil Service, it hit the Sheffield departments harder. Most spectacularly the Department leading on the Northern Powerhouse initiative (BIS) was relocated from Sheffield to London.

Poor Question Time coverage. Such poor Question Time coverage is indicative that Sheffield is often overlooked for regional offices and media coverage. Alongside Liverpool, it is one of the largest cities to not broadcast its own local BBC News service. 

The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. Labour have dominated Sheffield for decades, but it was only since the last election that all constituencies in Sheffield turned completely red. Aside from the lack of competition for votes, when the Tories are in power in Westminster, there is nobody fighting Sheffield’s corner in the governing party – unlike, say, Birmingham.

The Wider South Yorkshire Hinterland. Many cities on the list of 12 are sat in a constellation of wealthier commuter towns. Birmingham has leafy Solihull and Kenilworth. Leeds’ economy is supported by York, Harrogate and Selby.

Sheffield has Rotherham, Barnsley, Worksop, the economies of which depended on coal, coal and coal. Sheffield’s hinterland is struggling more than most, which is bad news for all of South Yorkshire.  

However, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. There are more cranes above the skyline than ever before. The University of Sheffield managed to coax Boeing to set up its first facility in Europe, in its Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (in Rotherham). New tramline extensions are due to open imminently.

The implementation of HS2 has the opportunity to transform Sheffield’s economic prospects – and HS3 may play an even more pivotal for Sheffield’s future. 

 
 
 
 

Canada’s gay neighbourhoods are struggling. Can queer pop-ups plug the gap?

Vancouver. Image: Getty.

Queer life was highly visible in Western Canada last year. In May, Vancouver declared 2018 the “Year of the Queer,” celebrating decades of service that the city’s cultural organisations have provided for lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer and two-spirit (LGBTQ/2S) people across the region.

Yet 2018 also saw the loss of multiple queer venues and gay bars. While economic forces, such as rapacious gentrification are part of the story and struggle, our research shows that something creative and generative is happening in the city as well.

In the face of changing urban landscapes, economic hardships, and more straights moving into historically gay neighbourhoods, queer pop-ups — ephemeral gathering spaces whose impact lingers among revellers long after the night is over — now play a large role in the fight for LGBTQ/2S equality.

Scattered gay places became neighbourhoods

Queer life germinated in “scattered gay places” across cities in North America from the late 1800s to the Second World War. Inside cabarets, bars, theatres or outside in public parks, washrooms and city streets, queers found spaces which could hold and celebrate transgressive sexual connections while also providing respite from daily experiences of discrimination and social exclusion.

After the Second World War, scattered gay places congealed into permanent gay bars and residential “gaybourhoods” in a period anthropologist Kath Weston calls “the great gay migration.” Queer people flocked to urban centres and sexual subcultures flourished in cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Toronto.

The formation of queer community spaces has always been controversial. Cultural and legal backlashes marred early developments. A host of laws and regulations tried to suppress and contain homosexuality in North America by limiting its presence in the public sphere.

These measures resulted in frequent hostilities, police raids and violence. Queers congregated together not just to find love or community, but to protect themselves, to protect one another and to find refuge. Pride parades, now celebrated worldwide, commemorate these early turf wars.

Pop-ups revitalise queer spaces

Researchers have written a great deal on the cultural and political importance of gay districts in urban centres, and they have grappled with concerns that these areas, along with the establishments they house, are fading.

But innovative urban forms challenge arguments about the death and demise of queer spaces in the city. Our research suggests that queer pop-ups, or temporary cultural gathering spaces, cater to diverse and often marginalised queers.

Some gaybourhoods are dwindling in their residential concentration and gay bars are dropping like flies. But new queer place-making efforts are emerging.

Two of the authors at the queer pop-up in 2018 at East Side Studios in Vancouver. Ryan is on the far left, back row, Adriana is on the far right of the back row. Image: author provided.

Unlike gaybourhoods and gay bars, pop-ups are intentional in how they address persistent, intersectional forms of inequality. Queer pop-ups offer patrons a space to explore non-binary forms of gender and sexual identities, and especially a place to experience collective effervescence among queer people of colour, and femme lesbians.

Some pop-ups create environments that are explicitly trans-inclusive, consent-focused, and sex-positive. Pop-ups are not panaceas for queer life. Pop-ups can also be places where issues around socioeconomic status, gender identity and expression, and racial inequality are called out.

Yet these spaces directly and indirectly encourage dialogue on inequalities within the queer community, conversations that help produce safer spaces for marginalised queers to find each other and forge enduring queer consciousnesses.

Turf wars

Queer pop-ups show similar trajectories of infighting and compromise that the LGBT social movement encountered from the late 1970s through the early 2000s when trying to forge a collective consciousness, gain social visibility and win legal rights.

These turf wars, expressed as contests over space and inclusion, are generally sparked over three perennial concerns: privilege, race and gender. One interviewee, a 20-year-old self-identified queer, trans person of colour (QTPoC), who spoke about Vancouver’s gay district told us:

“I tend to avoid the gay bars on Davie [because] a lot of the gay bars there have now been taken over by cis-gender, heterosexual people. I’ve [also] heard from a lot of QTPoC friends that they are often uncomfortable going to gay bars on Davie, because it’s usually very dominated by cis-gender, white gay men.”

A 28-year-old white, cisgender, queer male found pop-ups more politically and culturally radical than gay bars. He put it this way:

“It’s very rare that we’ll ever have a conversation about politics [in gay bars]. It’s just about partying and things that we kind of see as very stereotypical portrayals of gay culture: like going out, dancing, drinking, fucking.”

Historically, gaybourhoods have served an important role in the fight for LGBT rights, but they have also developed to cater to a specific cis-gender, white, middle-class, male sensibility. One 30-year-old, white, trans DJ put it bluntly, “the mainstream scene is just not welcoming to trans people, in my experience,” adding that verbal transphobic harassment is common in the streets of Vancouver’s gaybourhood.

At Vancouver Pride this year we were reminded of this schism at a local pop-up event. “Gay men won’t come here, it’s too trashy,” shouted a white Australian lesbian playfully to friends over loud music. We were at Eastside Studios, a large warehouse turned into the newest collaborative queer venue in Vancouver.


The comment was striking because it highlights the visible bifurcation occurring in queer life and queer consumption in Vancouver. Many gay men tend to patronise businesses and events in the West End, Vancouver’s official gaybourhood; whereas, other members of the LGBTQ community are scattered across the city at events and venues that are far less permanent. Eastside Studios attempts to break through the homonormative bent some gay bars perpetuate. It is a space that generously houses some of the struggling pop up events who lost space to gentrification in Vancouver’s out of control rental market.

Historically, pop-ups arose as the first signs of urban sexual transgression. They continue to emerge as spatial innovations which nurture transgressive queer diversities that do not have space or representation in the gaybourhood. Weekly social media blasts via Facebook or Instagram and word-of-mouth dissemination play an important role in linking queers around the city to these events. Pop-ups take different tones and establish different vibes among patrons. Collectively, pop-ups highlight the many important projects local queers are undertaking to increase the plurality of what queer life looks like and how it is expressed.

Struggles for equality

Marriage is the leading story in many headlines these days, but queer struggles for equality were never only about relationship recognition or acceptance into the mainstream.

Queer struggles are also fights to resist oppressive normativity, to end racial inequality and white supremacy, to end sexualised violence, to reconcile generational traumas associated with colonialism.

Continuing these fights is perhaps what makes queer pop-ups unique. Organisers of these events are intentional and responsive to such concerns. They seek to create new worlds that soften the impact of inequalities, both in gaybourhoods and in other parts of Canadian cities as well.

Pop-ups nourish queer lives; they emerge as temporary meeting grounds where diverse, oftentimes marginalised, queers flock for community and collective, momentary release. Here an image from a Man Up pop-up event in Vancouver. Image: Shot by Steph/Facebook/The Conversation.

Many of these spaces are an opportunity for patrons to travel in a re-imagined world, even if only for the night. While not all pop-ups that appear survive, the ones that do matter, fundamentally, because they create spaces that resist heteronormative culture and homonormativity, address intersecting inequalities, assert and anchor queer cultural and political identities, and promote well-being for a wider portion of the community in ways that gaybourhoods used to and have always had the potential to.

Pop-ups nourish queer lives in ways that gaybourhoods and gay bars historically had. They emerge as temporary meeting grounds where diverse, oftentimes marginalised, queers flock for community and collective, momentary release. They allow patrons to dance and comfortably explore the implications of their gender and sexual identities around like-minded individuals. At times they are more than friendly social gatherings, becoming sites where the moral arch of the community is shaped through demonstrations on urgent issues impacting queer lives and the surrounding community.

Queer pop-ups are vibrant locations that work to push forward the unfinished projects of social justice first envisioned during gay liberation.

The Conversation

Ryan Stillwagon, Ph.D. Student, Sociology, University of British Columbia; Adriana Brodyn, Ph.D. Candidate, University of British Columbia; Amin Ghaziani, Associate Professor of Sociology and Canada Research Chair in Sexuality and Urban Studies, University of British Columbia, and D. Kyle Sutherland, PhD Student, Department of Sociology, University of British Columbia.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.