'Pseudo-science' presentation on Covid criticised by Sheffield councillors

A top Sheffield officer has been criticised for a Covid report to councillors that was seven months - and two lockdowns - out of date.

By David Walsh
Tuesday, 16th March 2021, 12:35 pm

Edward Highfield gave a presentation on the impact on business based on a questionnaire from July.

He also produced data showing more than half of companies in health and social care, arts, entertainment and recreation were operating at ‘critical’ sales and booking levels.

This rose to 74 per cent for hospitality, 80 per cent of hairdressers and 100 per cent for events businesses.

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Edward Highfield, director of City Growth at Sheffield City Council.

But no definition of ‘critical’ was given.

The survey was based on 178 Sheffield businesses in July 2020.

Mr Highfield, head of super-department ‘City Growth’, spoke at an environmental wellbeing scrutiny committee meeting.

Leader of the Green party in Sheffield, Coun Douglas Johnson, said the data about firms feeling critical was ‘meaningless’ in terms of helping them.

He added: “It seems like a classic case of pseudo-science: presenting highly subjective data about feelings from different businesses to make it look like a rigorous piece of work.

“Yes, we know business is bad. It was bad in the first lockdown when these figures were compiled. It’s gone on much longer now, so these survey results will be pretty meaningless except to say business is still bad today.

“What it doesn’t say is how businesses responded to the factors within the council’s control, such as effective support through business rates relief and business grants.”

Mr Highfield said that in surveys, general conversations about the state of the economy and the impact of Covid were important, as were whether bosses felt they were in a ‘critical’ position.

The feedback was part of a ‘suite’ of measures to understand and help them, he added.

And they did not want to ‘bombard’ firms with surveys. Another is ‘coming soon’.

Coun Mazher Iqbal, cabinet member for business, said the July survey was a ‘snapshot of difficulties’ and the kind of information it produced was ‘very, very important’.

The presentation was in a scrutiny discussion where no decisions were taken, he added.

Green councillor Paul Turpin, who attended, said he was unaware of the age of the data until later.

And he criticised the amount of poor research by the authority.

He added: “Many decisions made in the council are unqualified due to poor research and data, and a flawed system of governance that funnels decision making through a small number of people."

Sheffield Lib Dem leader Shaffaq Mohhamed said out-of-date knowledge could hamper the authority’s recovery planning.

He added: “It’s very concerning that the city council is using data from last summer in relation to accessing how businesses are coping with Covid 19, so much has changed since last year.

“The council has to get better in its knowledge of the local economy and how individual sectors are fairing because without this how can it prepare Sheffield's recovery?”

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Thank you. Nancy Fielder, editor.