So the Council’s Planning Committee today (Tuesday 24) has approved the IKEA application - that comes as no surprise given the level of public emotion on the subject.
But much of the public debate - if you can call it that - has centred around simplistic versions of “It’ll create more jobs”/It’ll be good for the Sheffield economy/“It’ll put Sheffield on the map”.
These assertions have not been examined properly, and certainly weren’t at the Planning Committee. Neither was the very credible evidence that the impact of the development on air quality in the East End will be considerable, and that people living locally can expect to live shorter lives, and “enjoy” worse health as a result. Since they already live shorter lives and have worse health than most of the rest of Sheffield that does actually mean something if you live in Tinsley or nearby areas. Most of Councillors who made that decision don’t live there - in fact I doubt any do.
Nobody involved in the application – from the Director of Public Health for Sheffield, through the Council’s own Air Quality Officer, to the planning officers who prepared the report - denies this impact will happen. Even IKEA themselves admitted there will be an increase in traffic, and an effect on local levels of pollution and on people’s health. What most of them did is downplay it, reduce it to arguments about which particular spots might suffer most, whether some minor and speculative improvements in vehicle technology might reduce pollution emissions in the future, and offer some well-meant but insignificant mitigations - such as better buses, use of electric-powered delivery vans, and informing people about alternative means of travel. This is like asking people to halve their barbecue use as a measure to halt climate change. To his credit the Director of Public Health - Jeremy White - made it clear that public health would suffer and that he didn’t think the claimed benefits from jobs etc. could or would make up for that, despite concerted efforts by Officers and Councillors to push him to backtrack.
This decision is bad for the city. It completely undermines the Council’s Air Quality Action Plan - published last year - which should aim to reduce the 500 premature deaths in the city, as well as the larger impact on life expectancy and child health conditions that come from vehicle pollution - greater than traffic accidents or passive smoking. The Plan also stated that ‘all new developments should implement or support actions that make a positive contribution to improving air quality’. The decision also undermines the planned Emissions Action Zone planned for next year. And it exposes the city to extra financial costs if the EU decides to levy fines on countries that continue to infringe the limits imposed in 2008 which were designed to try to lower air pollution and protect citizens from its consequences - fines that our Government has stated it will pass on to local councils to pay. Should this decision be contested in court - on the grounds that it places Sheffield in defiance of EU Law - those costs will also be born by Sheffield.
But what of those claimed benefits - more jobs for local people, more money in the economy, a better image and more investment for Sheffield? IKEA are offering up to 400 part-time jobs plus others in contracted-out work and in construction of the store. However 75% of these will probably be part-time and low-paid - with most of them on the minimum wage. The net gain will be less than the equivalent of 200 full-time jobs. That’s not a lot of extra money in the economy - and given that most people on such low-paid jobs require state-paid benefits to make up their imcome to a living-wage it means we the tax-payers will actually be subsidising IKEA to employ them. I doubt if the majority of IKEA workers will be able to afford the goods they will be selling.
But it is said Sheffield needs an IKEA - what major city is without one? Well actually - quite a lot are without one. And do we really think so little of ourselves, and our city, that that’s all we want? Investment in Sheffield to create industry, and promote higher-level skills - such as the Advanced Manufacturing Park and the University’s new Science block - is one thing we do welcome. Investment in more retail outlets, that don’t offer a decent income, or real skills training, and which destroy as many jobs as they create - do we need that? I don’t think that’s going to help create a prosperous city to emerge from the recession of the last 6 years. The only real gainers from todays decision will be IKEA shareholders and management, pension-companies and banks - the financial industries that got us into the recession in the first place.
We do need to monitor IKEA, and other such developments [like NEXT], to make sure that they actually deliver what they promise. But as citizens we also need to raise our sights, and engage in a proper debate about how the city can try to deliver decent jobs and adequate living-standards to its population and create a real local economy. We ought to be able to rely on the Council to help lead that debate - today they let us down.