Interview: The art of regenerating Sheffield

Simon Ogden, head of City Regeneration at Sheffield Council
Simon Ogden, head of City Regeneration at Sheffield Council
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When Simon Ogden started working in Sheffield as a town planner in 1984, during the last days of the Miners’ Strike, he managed to catch the last of the city in its ‘industrial pomp’.

“It was quite ugly and dirty, but magnificent as well,” he says.

Simon Ogden head of city regeneration at Sheffield Council

Simon Ogden head of city regeneration at Sheffield Council

“People were very confident of their skill and usefulness. It was an interesting time. All the factories were still working full-time, day and night – but that started to change.”

Just two years later Simon, the council’s head of city regeneration, began focusing on parts of Sheffield that needed reviving as their fortunes turned.

He was responsible for dealing with the aftermath of the big steel factory closures in the Lower Don Valley, which led to the construction of Meadowhall, and then the £130 million Heart of the City programme that brought the Peace Gardens, the Millennium Gallery, the Winter Garden and much more.

Now the spotlight is on The Moor, the long-awaited retail quarter and West Bar Square, the £175m development behind the law courts that aims to ‘expand’ the city centre, as well as Simon’s passion for small ‘pocket parks’ and opening up Sheffield’s rivers.

“These things take a long time to change, and you need to have a sense of history to see things in perspective,” says the 64-year-old.

Simon was born in Lancaster, spent his teens in Newcastle and studied history at Cambridge before taking a degree in town planning at Sheffield University in 1974.

His father was a Church of England vicar, and his mother worked as a ward secretary for the NHS. His upbringing in the North East meant he ‘always knew’ he wanted to be a planner.

At the time, Newcastle’s council was led by T Dan Smith, who had ambitions to create a modernist ‘Brasilia of the North’.

“They were turning their backs on everything that made Newcastle a unique and exciting place,” reflects Simon, who spent time at Rotherham Council and the old South Yorkshire County council in Barnsley before joining Sheffield.

He says the city had been left with a ‘double whammy’ in the once densely-populated east end, as the council had demolished the terrace housing on the false expectation the steelworks would expand.

“We had all these huge areas of slum clearance, and the steelworks closed as well, leaving even more derelict land. You used to go through swathes of nothing – a moonscape. The strategy was to restore the landscape, because there was nothing green, and the rivers and canals were polluted.”

Sheffield was the first city ‘to think of regeneration through sport’ he says, with the Don Valley Stadium and associated facilities for the World Student Games.

“Unfortunately we didn’t get enough money to do it – Manchester did, with a lot of Government money.”

But he adds: “The area has certainly regenerated to the point where there’s very little derelict land left. I don’t say that everything went right – there was politics involved, for instance around Meadowhall.

“That has affected the city centre over the years, but at the time it wasn’t really a choice between ‘Do you want an out-of-town shopping centre or not?’

“We’ve had to live with the consequences of that ever since.”

The impact of Meadowhall is on the agenda again, given planning officers are scrutinising its application for a £300m ‘leisure hall’ extension.

“We need to have a balance,” says Simon.

“The shopping offer in the city centre is not commensurate with what it should be in the fourth-largest city in England, with the amount of spending power we’ve got.”

But he denies the city centre is ‘stuck’ in any way.

“The new retail quarter has been a long time coming, but The Moor has continued to very steadily improve – that’s only really now coming to full fruition. All the living quarters – Kelham Island, St Vincent’s and the area around Matilda Street – have moved forward a lot.

“We are keen to encourage a wider range of people living in the city centre, not just students or young people necessarily. Where possible we’re trying to persuade developers to think long term – some listen, some don’t.”

Simon enjoys ‘seeing people reclaiming bits of the city that have become hostile and unattractive’.

“I really like to see the landscape of the city being brought out, and giving people reminders of that – Sheffield was built in a Pennine valley with fast-flowing rivers.

“I’ve got a particular interest in the rivers, because they were what made the city and until quite recently most people would have struggled to tell you where the rivers were, other than possibly the River Don.”

The Grey to Green project along West Bar, which has involved sprucing up the street with grasses, plants and seating, linked with the goal of making the city easier on the eye, as do the ‘pocket parks’ at sites such as Matilda Street and the Sheaf Valley space above the railway station.

The idea of opening up the River Sheaf to create a small park where the old Castle Market stood remains active, despite the Heritage Lottery Fund turning down a bid. The council is working with the Environment Agency to prepare a new scheme, with a planning application expected later this year.

“It’s iconic in terms of explaining the history and origins of the city – that’s where the city began, the Sheaf Field,” says Simon.

He has a concept of how Sheffield could look in 10 years.

“On the west side of the city you’ll see more city living – established, distinctive quarters. On the east, you’ll see the business district start to expand into the Sheaf Valley, around hopefully a new high speed rail station. The university campuses will be more focused on the city centre, with Castlegate back as Sheffield’s old town.”

Simon lives at Crookesmoor with his partner Johanna, who also works in regeneration in Bradford, and between them they have three grown-up sons. He enjoys cycling, tends an allotment at Rivelin and writes local history books.

“Sheffield is like a book I can’t put down,” he says. “I always want to know what’s happening in the next chapter.”

‘We realised you had to make attractive spaces that drew people back in’

Simon Ogden started concentrating on regenerating the middle of Sheffield in 1994, when the first City Centre Masterplan was being developed.

The Peace Gardens ‘put a marker down’ for the city’s aims, using money from the Millennium Lottery and the EU.

“In the early 1990s the Peace Gardens was almost a no-go area. It was quite a dangerous area at night – a lot of street drinking and anti-social behaviour. And now almost any time you feel safe,” he says.

“In the 60s and early 70s it was assumed that footfall would just happen and the city centre would be busy. But as we moved people out and factories closed, the city centre became more quiet. We realised you had to make attractive spaces that drew people back in.”

The so-called ‘gold route’ for visitors has been extended down to the station, and up to Barker’s Pool, Devonshire Green and through the Sheffield University campus as far as Weston Park.

A consultation is now under way on a £5.6 million makeover of Fitzalan Square.