Conference a success, ring of steel praised but shoppers stayed away - was the £2m police operation justified?

Picture by reader Rebecca Campbell, aged 18. Email your protest photos to staronline@sheffieldnewspapers.co.uk
Picture by reader Rebecca Campbell, aged 18. Email your protest photos to staronline@sheffieldnewspapers.co.uk
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CITY leaders have hailed the Lib Dem Spring Conference a success, after Sheffield survived under the weight of 5,000 demonstrators, 3,000 party delegates and 1,000 police officers.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? WAS THE COST OF THE POLICE OPERATION JUSTIFIED? DID YOU JOIN THE PROTEST OR ARE YOU JUST GLAD SHEFFIELD IS BACK TO NORMAL? JOIN THE DEBATE BY ADDING YOUR COMMENT BELOW.

Only minor disturbances marred a weekend of mainly good-natured protests - police pounced on a gang of trouble-makers who tried to raid city-centre shops and banks, a man set off a flare in the middle of a crowd and two thugs assaulted a disabled Lib Dem delegate.

Question marks had been raised over the scale and estimated £2 million cost of the policing operation, after a giant eight-foot fence was erected in the city centre.

But police and council bosses defended the decision to play it safe - pointing to just one arrest in a whole weekend of protests.

Many traders complained shoppers stayed away from the city centre because of worries about trouble.

But council leader Paul Scriven insisted Sheffield would reap the rewards as the conference showed the city was capable of staging major events.

Police bosses have defended their tactics during their biggest operation since the 2007 floods.

Chief Superintendent Simon Torr said the prevention of widespread disorder at the Lib Dem conference was achieved because of the eight-foot fence and co-operation with demonstrators.

He said: “I’m very pleased with the way things have gone. Our job was to provide a safe and secure environment for the conference to take place, to allow peaceful protests for the people who wanted to come and vent their feelings and enable Sheffielders to go about their daily business.

“Everything went ahead with minimal disruption thanks to a lot of planning and hard work and we’ve had some really positive feedback from delegates and protesters.

“We struck a decent balance, the result of several weeks of careful preparations between officers and those planning the protest.

“The number of protesters was at the lower end of what we’d expected, but we had to plan for the worst case scenario.

“There were some people intent on causing disruption who occupied around three shops in Fargate, but we were able to deal with them swiftly because of the resources we had in place and they were moved back to the protest zone.”

Chf Supt Torr said other tactics, including the use of the fence and the protest liaison team, had worked well: “The fence meant police and protesters weren’t facing one another, which can be a recipe for antagonism.

He said the final bill for policing the event would not be known for some weeks but added that some officers were stood down when necessary: “It’s much better to do it that way round and be prepared, rather than be caught out.

“The conference has proved that Sheffield and South Yorkshire Police can deal with major events.”

Chief Constable Med Hughes signed seven documents giving his officers powers to limit where protesters could congregate.

Officers also put steel barriers across Fargate and Surrey Street when scuffles broke out and closed access between the Town Hall and Division Street, blocking the entrance to John Lewis.

A fringe meeting with Business Secretary Vince Cable was moved from St Paul’s Mecure Hotel to a function room in the fortress-like City Hall and ministers were reportedly advised to avoid leaving the secure zone if possible.

Dozens of blue-uniformed liaison officers advised demonstrators and members of the public during the conference. They used the Twitter social networking site to share information, which included dispelling rumours of snipers on the roof of John Lewis and allaying protesters’ fears about possible ‘kettling’ techniques.