Can we make Sheffield city more fair?

Making a difference: Professor Alan Walker. picture: steve parkin
Making a difference: Professor Alan Walker. picture: steve parkin
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IN front of Professor Alan Walker are several multi-coloured maps of Sheffield.

“They show this city is absolutely unique for the UK,” he says, looking at them. “But it is a uniqueness that stains us all.”

Each one charts deprivation here according to a different indicator such as income, health or employment. The poorest areas are in red, the most well off in blue.

“In other cities, the colours are mixed across neighbouring areas,” says Professor Walker. “But here you can almost draw a line from the south east to the north west dividing them. It is a brutal contrast.”

On one side of the line, in places like Manor, Pitsmoor and Parson Cross, income tends to be lower, benefits higher and crime more common.

On the other hand, in places like Dore, Whirlow and Ecclesall, the exact opposite is true.

“It even affects like expectancy,” says Professor Walker. “Think in terms of taking the 83 bus from Bents Green to Burngreave. You get on at one end where, as a male, you can expect to live eight years longer than in the place you get off.

“For a city that prides itself on fairness, these are deep divisions and they diminish us all.”

It is something Professor Alan Walker perhaps has the power to change.

Some 10 months ago this Sheffield University expert in social policy and gerontology was called by Sheffield City Council leader Julie Dore and asked to chair the city’s first ever Fairness Commission.

Its aim was simple, if somewhat daunting: to investigate the concept of fairness, take evidence from relevant bodies, analyse figures compiled over the last decade, and finally come up with ways to create a more equal Sheffield.

Those findings and recommendations are set to be published in a 50-page report due in October.

Professor Walker is tight-lipped about what exactly it will say (“for the very good reason I don’t know myself yet”) but it is likely to call for a city-standard living wage, a commitment to lowering those differences in life expectancies and a need for more equal educational opportunities.

“Ultimately, there are two broad aims,” says the 63-year-old. “Firstly, we want everyone to have an equal opportunity to participate in the life of the city, according to ability and preference.

“And secondly we want everyone to believe there is a sense of fairness here, that everyone is treated equally, that there is fair play at work.

“It won’t be easy. It will be a medium to long term strategy which means the results will only begin to show in five to 10 years. But this is a big issue and there is no quick-fix solution.”

It has already not been easy.

Professor Walker agreed to lead the commission on the conditions it would be non-partisan and non-politicised, and would include representatives from some 26 different interest groups.

Those at the table have included Julie Dore, David Child from the Chamber of Commerce, TUC regional representative Bill Adams, Bishop Steven Croft from the Diocese of England, The Star editor Jeremy Clifford and politicians of all different hues.

“Why did I take it on?” muses Professor Walker, who was born in London but moved here in 1977 and now lives in Nether Edge. “Because I felt this was a real opportunity to improve the city I love.

“Hellishly difficult, of course, when you think the aim is to turn round decades of entrenched inequality but I was assured it wasn’t a cosmetic exercise; that this was being done because the authority wanted to do something about these issues.”

The commission has been modelled on a parliamentary select committee.

Since February, it has had 15 meetings – grilling 17 key witnesses, taking more than 60 pieces of evidence and sifting through some 18 council reports. In all, more than 120 bodies have contributed including national groups which deal explicitly with equality – such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation based in York – and a range of city-based bodies including Darnall Community Group and Sheffield Campaign For Social Justice.

Transport bosses, health officials, police and educational officers were all called to give evidence. Themes including health, education, income, housing, crime and alcohol misuse were all considered.

“This had to include as many different people and stake-holders as possible,” says Professor Walker.

“It had to be representative of the city – not just be about a small group of academics or city elites.

“That has inevitably led to disagreements because you’ve got people with hugely different beliefs and opinions but it has allowed us to get a better picture of fairness in Sheffield. It was an entirely inclusive process. Ultimately, we want Sheffield to be the fairest city in the country.”

It is something Julie Dore had in mind when she set up the process. She intends for the final report to go before the city council where its recommendations will be discussed before possible implementation. A budget of £1 million has been put aside to fund any action.

“The commission wants to identify things that could make a real difference to the lives of people here and now but also where we need to focus our efforts in the future, including things that Government controls and what we can do to change them,” she says.

“We need to work together to make changes that will help grow and develop Sheffield for the better, making sure that everyone who lives here has the chance to make the most out of their lives.”

Now the evidence-gathering process has almost been completed.

One last public meeting will be held on September 8 when Sheffielders are invited to attend, hear what has been discussed so far and give their own views.

Then a draft report will be hammered out by the commission with a final draft published in October.

If it is successful, that city map will never look the same again.

The Fairness Commission’s public meeting will take place at Sheffield Town Hall on Saturday, September 8, 9.30am - 1pm. For more information or to book a place visit or call 0114 205 3126.

The historical causes

IN no other city in the UK is the contrast between the haves and have-nots quite so geographically severe as in Sheffield.

A handful of boroughs in the north east of the city are among the most deprived in the entire country.

In the south west, meanwhile, there are some of the wealthiest places in the UK.

Historically, the south west was desirable because it had wide roads, was away from the steel factories and, because of prevalent wind directions, tended not to be affected by smog or factory smells.

But it has remained so largely because a form of social engineering which took place in other areas was simply never considered in Sheffield.

“In many cities, affordable housing was often built close to more wealthy areas in an attempt to disperse the effects of inequality,” says Professor Alan Walker. “But this was rarely done in Sheffield. I’m not sure why.”

He says his report will not recommend such specific neighbourhood engineering for the future.

“As a way of reducing deprivation and improving equality, the evidence suggests it does not work,” he says.

The disparities in numbers


Highest - Whirlow/Abbeydale: £59,600.

Lowest - Highfield: £13,500


Highest - Worrall: 92.1 years old.

Lowest - Flower estate: 72.7 years old

EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT (Per cent of pupils achieving 5+ A*-C grades at GCSE):

Highest - Dore: 85.5 per cent.

Lowest - Manor: 15.9 per cent.

CRIME (Reported crime rate per 1,000 population from 2009):

Lowest - Ecclesall: 14.3

Highest - Tinsley: 202.0