What’s the matter with Sheffield?

Sheffield by night. Image: Benedict Hunjan/Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been sniffing around this database looking for stories to tell for nearly two and a half years now. And one of the questions I keep coming back to is: what’s gone wrong with Sheffield?

Time and again, when trawling through the economic data, the capital of South Yorkshire comes out near the bottom of league tables. Check this out:

Sheffield is a major regional centre, at the heart of a metropolitan area of 1m people, and houses two universities. Nonetheless, it’s in the bottom half of the league table on business start-up rates and patent applications, and dragging along the bottom on business stock and GVA per worker (which, by this point, I am all but contractually obliged to explain is a measure of productivity).

This pattern keeps up if you restrict the field to Sheffield’s direct competitors. Of the eight English core cities, Sheffield has the worst GVA per worker:

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(That’s only £280 less per worker than Nottingham, but still.)

What’s more, this has been true for some years now. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also has the lowest wages...

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...and that’s not new either.

On a host of other measures not quite so bad, but still not great. It’s 6th out of eight on employment rates:

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And 7th out of eight on the ratio of public to private sector jobs:

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Here’s where it gets weird. On education levels – which are generally seen as pretty important if you want a vibrant economy – Sheffield is actually doing alright:

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Relatively few Sheffield residents have no qualifications:

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And it’s comfortably mid-table on those with degree level qualifications. In this it contrasts with Liverpool, a city with which it often competes for the bottom rank on the economic tables:

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What explains all this? Sheffield is far from the only English city struggling to bounce back from post-industrial decline. And it has plenty going for it, not least a relatively educated population and perhaps the most beautiful landscape of any major English city. So why is it finding it so tough?

My guess – and it is only a guess – Is it’s a largely a matter of infrastructure. Sheffield is not really on the way anywhere. Its trains to the capital use the Midland Mainline into St Pancras, rather than the faster East or West Coast Mainlines.

It’s also too far south to benefit from the main east-west routes in the main urban corridor of the north, and the Peak District National Park to its west, gorgeous though it is, makes it disproportionately difficult to get to booming Manchester, just 35 miles away.


Oh – it also, as I’ve noted before, twice, has terrible broadband. Throw in the fact it’s a multi-polar region with a relatively small population, and the fact it doesn’t get the tourist trade you see in somewhere like Liverpool, and the poor place seems destined to get forgotten.

But, as I noted, this is largely guesswork. If you have theories of your own, get in touch.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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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.