The inside story of how Sheffield city centre has reopened – and the lessons chiefs have learned for the future

It is easy to close down a city centre – but far trickier to reopen one, Mazher Iqbal observes.

By Richard Blackledge
Wednesday, 8th July 2020, 3:00 pm

Sheffield Council’s cabinet member for business and investment has been helping to steer the gradual reawakening of shops, restaurants, pubs and more as lockdown measures have been eased, a process that began on June 15 and then picked up in earnest on July 4.

“A lot of work went into it," says Mazher. “We approached it as we'd do with a major event, like Tramlines. You have similar issues, where people are queuing up and you're getting large crowds and so forth.”

Consequently a joint effort was mounted, in which the council has worked alongside the city centre Business Improvement District, South Yorkshire Police, transport operators and other partners – and the results are clear to see, from the proliferation of hand sanitising stations to vinyl stickers reading ‘be smart, stay apart’ and extra cleaning rounds in busy areas.

Fargate in Sheffield city centre. Picture: Chris Etchells.

“If you're on Fargate it's brilliant, because you've got wide paths," says Mazher. “When you start getting to the narrow pavements that becomes more challenging. The pandemic hasn't gone away. We must always be vigilant.”

Firms 'didn't know what to expect', he says, and it was important to create a sense of safety to ensure customers had enough confidence to return. A campaign called ‘Make Yourself At Home’ is promoting the city’s economic recovery, while roads have been closed, paths widened and bus routes diverted to encourage people to walk or cycle and maintain social distancing.

“The NHS and council and other public sector staff were the key workers for the pandemic – I see these businesses and entrepreneurs as the ones that are going to help us with the economy,” says Mazher.

The complicated guidance around reopening the hospitality sector was compiled in an easy-to-read handbook which, as well as being distributed in the city centre, was also sent out to the owners of businesses in suburbs like Woodseats, Hillsborough and Darnall, in recognition of the fact that shops continued to trade in such places throughout the pandemic's peak.

Shoppers queuing to enter Primark on The Moor. Picture: Chris Etchells.

A ‘pavement cafe’ initiative aims to cut bureaucracy and red tape around outside seating for pubs, bars and cafes too.

“With Devonshire Green for example, we're saying if a business is finding capacity difficult inside they can use that space. On Fargate, if anybody in Sheffield wants to set up a food or drink pop-up, like we do for the farmers' market, we're happy to do that.

“For planning and licensing, if you submitted an application you could be waiting for up to 50 days. For businesses that's far too long. What we've said is go on the website, if you meet the aims put those tables and chairs out, and if there's any ambiguity there's a contact number.”

Traders have ‘done a really good job’ in tough circumstances, he says, describing a visit to one pub where two customers had refused to provide their details for contact tracing.

Coun Mazher Iqbal and Diane Jarvis, manager of the Sheffield BID, on Fargate. Picture: Chris Etchells.

“They just weren't prepared to do it so they were turned away. The owner said the guidelines from the Government weren't worth the paper they were written on.”

In addition, some venues told him reopening on a Monday, rather than the so-called ‘Super Saturday’ of July 4, would have been less stressful – several opted to wait until July 6.

Diane Jarvis, the manager of the BID, says the approach to reopening the middle of Sheffield represented a citywide first.

“This is the first time that we have all worked on such a large-scale operation in such a short space of time, sharing best practice between all agencies and cities across and outside of Sheffield.

“The city has drawn on its expertise in major events planning, business retail management and traffic management.

“The reopening of the city centre was a collaborative effort. Reopening was always going to be complicated technical challenge requiring leadership and partnership working across highways, health and safety, licencing and public health.”

Feedback from businesses has been positive, Diane says, and there is ‘an ongoing review process to which the centre can be adapted and changed dependent on the circumstances’.

“There is a desire now to use these new challenges to take forward different ways of managing a busy city centre in the future. The high street has been hit hard by the pandemic. It will take time to recover but Sheffield city centre will continue to be a social centre and our cultural heart.

“We will all be working hard to keep the centre cleaner, safer, smarter and more innovative than ever before.”

Mazher is aware some business owners have opened at a loss, and he admits to being fearful about the prospects for people’s jobs as the Government's furlough scheme starts to be wound up.

Figures from Centre for Cities think tank suggested Sheffield had experienced the fifth-lowest ‘bounce’ in footfall of any city in England since June. John Lewis has yet to announce a reopening date for its Barker’s Pool store, even as the council prepares to sign off a financial package in a bid to refurbish the former Cole Brothers shop.

“We talk about recovery, but you need to be talking about survival,” Mazher says.

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