What is a city without an airport? On Sheffield, Doncaster and Robin Hood

The airport is so small we could find no useable pictures of it online. Image: Getty.

Having a skewed sense of pride in your city of birth is not uncommon.  Whether you hail from Glasgow, Baltimore or Stuttgart, you’re keen to promote your home town and emphasize its positives to the world. And if you define yourself as a Glaswegian, then your own identity is based in part on the identity of Glasgow itself – so the question of whether your city is seen as an international destination or a provincial backwater can become somewhat personal.

I’m from Sheffield and have always had great pride in the place. Despite it being a medium-sized, unglamorous city with few tourist attractions, it does have two fine universities, a metro system (OK, light rail) and an airport – or these days, half an airport.

When I was growing up, Sheffield’s rivalry with Yorkshire’s other big city, Leeds, was intense. Located just 30 miles up the M1 motorway, Leeds appeared to hold all the cards – a greater population, taller buildings, a grand train station and a busy airport.  Sheffield, on the other hand, suffered from higher unemployment and greater economic stagnation.

And, to my further shame, my home town was regularly cited as Europe’s largest city without an airport.

All this seemed to change in the 1990s, when Sheffield’s new light rail system began operations and Sheffield City Airport opened. Located close to the city centre, this brand new airport had a very short runway and a tiny terminal. But the sight of sleek regional jets touching down beside the Parkway, the main arterial route into Sheffield from the M1, had me bursting with civic pride. Now, surely Sheffield could be defined as a proper European city, boasting as it did both a sizable metro system and its own airport.

The late, lamented Sheffield City Airport. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

We even outdid Leeds, I told myself gleefully, as our rival didn’t have any form of light rail, and its unimpressive (if larger) airport was miles out of town. Indeed, as discussions over its proposed light rail system stalled, Leeds was regularly identified as being Europe’s largest city with no light rail or metro. Sheffield, I believed, was now forging its own identity as a major urban player. Surely it was only a matter of time before the city’s light rail system was connected to the new airport, I thought, and could begin whisking passengers into the city centre in a matter of minutes. Could we soon have genuine bragging rights over our Yorkshire rival?

Alas, my dream was shattered. In June 2008 the cash-strapped Sheffield Council closed City Airport and sold the land for development. The official excuse was that the airport was making a loss and the runway couldn’t be extended for larger jets. But many Sheffielders were unconvinced: all airports make an initial loss, opponents pointed out, and the parkway site was virtually the only flat place for an airport in this hilliest of British cities.

Despite the protests, the closure went ahead. My home town had regained the unwanted moniker of being the largest European city without its own airport.

Or had it?

As City Airport was in its death throes, the former RAF base at Finningley, 18 miles to the east, was being rebranded as a passenger airport. Located to the south of Doncaster, Finningley wasn’t really on my radar. I knew it was a hassle to get to from Sheffield, with the initial stretch of motorway followed by a circuitous, mazy route on minor roads. Reports of people getting lost when driving to Finningley were not uncommon, and everyone knew the rush hour traffic around Doncaster could be appalling.

Despite it being branded as “Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield”, Sheffielders remained skeptical. No direct public transport link existed from Sheffield, they pointed out, and naming the airport after Robin Hood didn’t help matters as the mythical Prince of Thieves was strongly associated with Nottingham and green tights. Besides, Finningley was too far out of town to be seen as Sheffield’s airport, wasn’t it?

To make matters worse it soon became clear that the name “Doncaster Sheffield” was too long to fit on most departure boards, which meant that the name was regularly shortened to “Doncaster”. Soon it began to be universally referred to as “Doncaster Airport”, the Sheffield part of the name being dropped by all but the most pedantic. And to be fair, “Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield” doesn’t really roll off the tongue, does it?

I remember despairing of the marketing of DSA. For a start, Sheffield is four or five times larger than Doncaster. Shouldn’t the major city’s name have come first? To be honest, I’d have been quite happy with departure boards dropping Doncaster from the name instead.

As for Robin Hood, this was simply a nod to a recognisable name. There were far more worthy candidates to name an airport after, not least flight pioneer Amy Johnson, who lived and studied in Sheffield.

Initially, a relatively wide range of flights were offered from DSA, to places like Amsterdam, Berlin and Brussels. However, Like Sheffield City Airport, it’s fortunes declined after a bright start. Passenger numbers slumped after Easyjet pulled out in 2012. By 2014, the only flights left were seasonal “bucket and spade” destinations to the Mediterranean and a range of little-known East European cities offered by the Hungarian budget carrier Wizz Air. DSA was still routinely mocked by Sheffielders, many of whom still chose to fly from Manchester or Leeds. “You can’t fly anywhere from Doncaster” became another common refrain.

Ooooh, shiny. Image: author provided.

Since its nadir in 2013, however, glimmers of hope have emerged. The airport’s marketers seem to have realized that Sheffield has a certain amount of name recognition, and efforts are being made to refer to “Doncaster Sheffield” in all official communications and literature. Thankfully the name “Robin Hood” appears to have been downgraded. 

In 2016, the airline FlyBe launched new routes to seven destinations including Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and Dublin, and annual passenger numbers increased from 830,000 in 2015 to a record 1,2 million in 2016. Last winter, ads for the airport, with the slogan “fly local” began to appear in Sheffield’s main train station and elsewhere. The airport also began sponsoring Sheffield United FC. 

More significantly, getting lost on the way is now a thing of the past. A new link road opened in 2016 connecting DSA to the motorway, meaning the airport is now just a 25 minute drive from Sheffield city centre, When the final stretch of the link road is completed in 2018, the travel time could be closer to 20 minutes, which is better than many other comparable city-to-airport journey times, including Leeds city centre to Leeds-Bradford Airport.

I’ve flown into the airport a few times now and do now get the feeling of being almost home when stepping off the plane. For me, however, DSA will never achieve full status as Sheffield’s airport until you can jump on a bus to and from the city centre. Currently, public transport users in Sheffield must take a train to Doncaster – there’s only one 25 minute “fast” train per hour – before switching to a thrice-hourly bus service for the 20-minute onward airport journey. With hourly trains running direct from Sheffield to Manchester Airport, which offers low fare carriers and destinations galore, it’s little wonder that DSA is still seen as a something of a niche market.

Some Sheffielders still cling to the belief that the city “doesn’t have an airport” and “Doncaster doesn’t count”. And to be honest, there’s no way the light rail will link it to the city in my lifetime. However, even though I commonly refer to it as “Doncaster” these days, there’s no doubt that DSA is gradually becoming better known as Sheffield’s airport and my civic pride is slowly being restored. It’s not perfect, but I’ll take it.


How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.