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. 


What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.

“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.