What did we learn from the Sheffield City Region mayoral hustings?

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

The week before last, the Centre for Cities and local Chambers of Commerce held the first hustings for the Sheffield City Region mayoral election with all the leading candidates, focusing in particular on their plans for the local economy (Dave Allen of the English Democrats could not attend).

The big attendance at Meadowhall showed the considerable appetite from business leaders and the wider community to hear about the plans of the prospective mayors, in what has been a low-key campaign so far.

The Sheffield City region mayoral election is unique, having been delayed by 12 months because of disagreements over the geography of the city regions, while six other mayoral elections took place.  But two other factors made these hustings stand out.

First, half of the candidates present – Dan Jarvis (Labour), Mick Bower (Yorkshire), Rob Murphy (Green) – are running for a position they would seek to abolish as soon as possible, in favour of a whole Yorkshire devolution deal (with or without a mayor).

Second, disagreements between members of the combined authority (made up of Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield) – and with the government – mean that the public consultation needed to unlock the powers and resources on offer as part of the city region’s devolution deal has not yet taken place.

The upshot is that whoever is elected on Thursday will have next-to-no powers and funding until they bring together combined authority colleagues to overcome the procedural hurdles needed to rubber-stamp the devolution deal. Only then will they gain the full powers and funding on the table: £900m investment over 30 years, a significant share of the £1.7bn ‘Transforming Cities Fund’, and considerable powers over skills, transport and housing.

Working with local leaders to unlock powers and funding 

It was not surprising, then, that the first question asked at the event (from a representative of the Chamber) was: How would the candidates help the combined authority to work together, and how could businesses help?

Hannah Kitching (Liberal Democrats) called for independent external mediation to overcome longstanding internal disputes and promised to be an honest broker on the combined authority. She also said that she would make the argument that “you don’t have to dim anyone else’s lights to make yours shine brighte”’ – referencing concerns that Sheffield has been prioritised in the combined authority, particularly over the move of the local HS2 station from Meadowhall to Sheffield city centre.

The Conservatives’ Ian Walker would seek to get business voices involved in a revived South Yorkshire Forum. He would not rule out a Yorkshire-wide deal but would make the case for getting the money on offer now flowing.

Rob Murphy of the Greens argued that the closed nature of the combined authority allowed leaders to behave badly, and that opening up the whole system to greater public scrutiny would shame leaders into a greater collaboration.

Mick Bower of the Yorkshire party would join those calling for a Yorkshire-wide deal on the combined authority, and use the mayor’s mandate to pressure the government to agree to this objective.

A number of candidates questioned whether Dan Jarvis, as a Labour candidate and an MP in the area, would be able to mediate effectively between Labour-controlled councils.

His response was that, for those very reasons, he is best-placed to work with the councils – and that what was lacking was leadership, not mediation. Jarvis argued that his clout and credibility with local leaders and Sajid Javid (Housing, Communities & Local Government secretary) would get the process moving forward within the week.

Naveen Judah, candidate for South Yorkshire Save Our NHS, promised to bring no bias or dogma, and offer impartial and transparent leadership to build the trust needed to bring the combined authority together and unlock new powers.

Improving bus services

Buses were the focus of questions on transport, due to declining numbers on local services and the high number of people in the city region using private vehicles. The new mayor will have considerable powers to act on this issue alone thanks to the Bus Services Act.

Ian Walker wants fully integrated ticketing and more dedicated bus lanes to improve services and speeds. Mick Bower would push for better coordination of routes, promising to rationalise services in well-covered areas to provide services elsewhere.

Hannah Kitching vowed to address the difficulty of travelling between local authorities via bus, describing it as “nigh on impossible” in places.

Dan Jarvis would use regulatory powers to improve services, before eventually moving to franchising and offering special concessionary fares and integrated ticketing.

Finally, Rob Murphy reiterated his long-standing support for bus franchising and promised to bring it in as soon as possible, to enable greater cross-subsidy between profitable and less profitable but socially valuable routes.

Maximising Sheffield City Region’s profile

One of the key roles of the new mayor will be to raise the profile of the city region on the national and international stage and to attract more investment.

Rob Murphy argued that electing a Green Party candidate would help to attract low carbon investment and show that the city-region has changed course.

For Dan Jarvis, the key is to bolster the city region’s bid to be the new home of Channel 4 and to promote local cultural assets. He would work with ‘Welcome to Yorkshire’ and try to showcase the area’s quality as a place to live and raise a family to attract investors.

Hannah Kitching argued that the city region must overcome what she described as a reputation for being inward-looking. She would place greater focus on supporting small and new firms to expand through introducing a growth hub.

Ian Walker vowed to lead trade missions as mayor and highlighted the need to improve connectivity, skills and training – as well as creating more business parks and infrastructure as the key to attracting investment.

Mick Bower argued that Yorkshire was the brand with the profile to get behind, and promised to show the city region’s outward-looking face by funding a new museum on the site where Sheffield FC (the oldest football club in the world) play.

Naveed Judah argued for a visionary and forward-looking plan to attract global investors to work on artificial intelligence, robotics and environmental challenges.

Skills and the gender pay gap

A member of the Women’s Equality Party asked how candidates would close the gender pay gap and ensure everyone able to contribute to the local economy is rewarded fully. Dan Jarvis promised to appoint a female deputy mayor and show a lead on eliminating the gender pay gap on the Combined Authority. Publishing the gap and increasing public scrutiny would be the policy of Hannah Kitching, who also vowed to act as a role model

For Ian Walker, the key is tackling cultural barriers to women applying to study different subjects. Mick Bower would use procurement to favour local, smaller firms that invest in training, and use these rules to ensure these firms eliminate the gender pay gap.

Citing local skills gap in engineering, one audience member asked how candidates would ensure vocational options are viewed with the same esteem as academic. All candidates agreed on the need to align employer demand with skills provision, and the value of bringing employers into the system to demonstrate available opportunities and the routes to achieve them. Hannah Kitching, Dan Jarvis and Mick Bower each called for more powers to intervene earlier and fund primary and secondary education rather than try to fix issues at 18.

The answers given by the candidates show that they are thinking carefully about the challenges and issues the Sheffield City Region faces, even those who would prefer a Yorkshire-wide devolution deal. To tackle these issues, and to deliver for people across the city region, whoever takes office on 4 May will first need to bring together local leaders – and overcome the disagreements which have delayed this election.

Simon Jeffrey is a policy officer at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

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Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.

…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.