INTERVIEW: 'We must plan with everyone in mind to tackle inequality in Sheffield'

Sheffield Council's new chief planning officer Rob Murfin wants to tackle inequality.
Sheffield Council's new chief planning officer Rob Murfin wants to tackle inequality.
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Developers who want to build in Sheffield must work to benefit everyone in the city, according to the council's new head of planning.

Rob Murfin began his career working for Greenpeace, but a talk on urban development led him into line of work where he hoped to make a real change.

Investment from companies such as Boeing must help the whole city.

Investment from companies such as Boeing must help the whole city.

As a former Sheffield Hallam University student he always hoped to return to South Yorkshire, and has long had his eye on the role of chief planning officer.

He started at the council in May, and having spent time assessing where his department was doing well and had room to improve, has now set out his aims for Sheffield's future.

"Ideologically I’m driven to tackle inequality," he said.

"That fits in with (chief executive) John Mothersole’s inclusive approach to economic growth. A key part of that is health inequality. It differentiates depending on where you are born.

There is no 'silver bullet' to solve the housing crisis, according to Mr Murfin.

There is no 'silver bullet' to solve the housing crisis, according to Mr Murfin.

"A lot of places are involved in getting economic growth without asking why. It would be growth for its own sake.

"I don’t want to assume that trickle down in the economy will happen by magic."

Economic growth, inequality and sustainability are clearly buzzwords for Mr Murfin, who repeats them often when describing his ambitions for the city.

Naturally he believes investment is needed for Sheffield to succeed. But he is also clear he wants big developments to benefit the whole city.

Sheffield 'should be confident' in the new retail quarter.

Sheffield 'should be confident' in the new retail quarter.

He said: "When you land McLaren, Boeing and Rolls Royce you want to make sure growth is done in a way that everyone can take advantage of it. I’m talking about linking together infrastructure, improving schools, looking at air quality.

"Poor health is often consequence of low economic activity rates. In the same way that’s a condition of economic growth.

"If we can have high levels of economic growth it will be done in a way that everyone can see the benefit."

A key priority for Sheffield and the wider city region is housing. The region is hitting job targets but falling some way short on the number of new homes being built.

The council aims to ensure affordable housing is part of developments such as Oughtibridge Mill.

The council aims to ensure affordable housing is part of developments such as Oughtibridge Mill.

Mr Murfin said there was 'no silver bullet' for the housing crisis. But he hopes to push ahead with a new local plan for Sheffield to help guide development for the next decade and beyond.

"We want to focus on brownfield sites, which are pretty expensive to develop," he said.

"Even though house prices have gone up they are still not at a level which can always support workable sites.

"The council will always look to engage and assist. We do have our own housing company. We have stuck housing powers. But getting more housing built isn’t about having one big site."

Solving the housing crisis is not just about identifying sites. It also needs developers to build the kind of homes the people of Sheffield need.

The council has faced a reluctance from some firms recently to stick to the affordable housing requirements imposed as a condition of planning permission.

Firms such as Crosslane will be asked to make sure their student flat developments can be converted to private rented accommodation.

Firms such as Crosslane will be asked to make sure their student flat developments can be converted to private rented accommodation.

Commercial Estates Group, for example, was refused permission to remove the condition from its 320-home Oughtibridge Mill development and is taking the decision to appeal.

Mr Murfin said: "Affordable housing is a priority and we will be using a variety of ways to make sure that the most opportunities for it are taken and that we do the work in a way that developers know up front what they need to provide."

Development on the green belt is also a contentious issue for council planners to deal with. Whether it be housing, such as Avant Homes' plan to develop a brownfield site within the green belt in Stannington, or employment land, such as the Smithy Wood service station off junction 35 of the M1, there are complex arguments to resolve.

The council hopes the new local plan will clarify things for residents and developers. But some green space may have to be sacrificed.

"The green belt was set up with a particular set of criteria in mind," Mr Murfin said.

"The broad extent of the green belt is almost certainly right. However, it’s worth looking again and making sure that the need for modern housing in sustainable locations can be accommodated in the city.

"We want to drive this through sustainable development. The green belt wasn’t defined with that in mind.

"It was done as a tool for protecting the coalescence of towns and stopping sprawl when actually there could be some really sustainable sites, well connected by public transport that could make sense to be developed."

One area that could have been seen as neglected until recently is the city centre. But with the retail quarter now under construction and cranes all over the skyline, is there cause for optimism?

Mr Murfin said Sheffield should be confident in the retail quarter, but there is still work to be done elsewhere.

"If Sheffield city centre is to continue to grow and do well it’s quite simple - we need more people to be working here and more people to be living here," said Mr Murfin.

"We have made outstanding successes of Boeing and the Advanced Manufacturing Park, and things like Channel 4 could be really important for the city centre.

"Desirability will need to go up so we will need to look at things we haven’t got, such as the private sector rented market. We need to have more good quality private sector rented housing. And then somewhere where these people can buy a family house when they are ready.

"By doing that we will improve graduate retention. Most northern cities have a problem with the fourth job move because that’s when people decide to set their own companies up.

"Keeping them in the city is about having the right offer."

That said, the planning department clearly has a job on its hands to persuade developers to put up flats that are not designed for students.

Barely a month goes by without the planning committee considering another huge development in the city centre.

"We tell developers to think carefully about investment," said Mr Murfin.

"The student market is approaching a point where enough flats have been built. We say make sure that buildings can be retro-altered to convert them into private flats."

New development is inevitably a focus of the planning department. But Sheffield also has plenty of older buildings that many city residents are keen to see protected.

Key causes for concern include Leah's Yard, which falls within the retail quarter site, and the Old Town Hall, which requires major investment.

Heritage campaigners may be pleased to hear Mr Murfin's position.

"When you are looking to grow it’s always important to avoid thinking you have got a blank canvas," he said.

"Actually designing in improvements and preserving the best locations in the city centre really helps establish it as a great quality area.

"Otherwise you end up looking like a lot of other city centres in the region, when you need to maximise your uniqueness.

"You do that by respecting the historic fabric of the city and taking every step to enhance it."

"We need to avoid anger or arguments of either economic growth or protecting the historic environment. Actually a good quality historic environment is a good way of getting economic growth.

"The greatest cities in Europe are those that do urban design properly."

Heritage such as Leah's Yard is an important part of the city.

Heritage such as Leah's Yard is an important part of the city.