Outgoing Sheffield Chamber chief speaks of his legacy - and his one regret

Sheffield Chamber chief Richard Wright is stepping down after 10 years at the end of this month, here he reflects on his achievements – and what he might have done differently.
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Why are you stepping down?

I’ve been at the Chamber for nearly 10 years having come at the request of the board for two weeks to look at a couple of problems.

The problems turned out to be deep rooted and I’ve stayed much longer than anticipated.

Richard Wright, of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce at the HS2 Summit. Picture: Andrew RoeRichard Wright, of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce at the HS2 Summit. Picture: Andrew Roe
Richard Wright, of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce at the HS2 Summit. Picture: Andrew Roe
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Fundamentally, I feel it's time to move on. The Chamber and the city are entering an exciting time and need to develop the strategies and implementation plans needed for a city and economy 20 years ahead.

What have been your top achievements?

It's easy to list things like flood defences, UTC’s, and campaigns like HS2, but probably the thing I’m most proud of is working with partners to change the culture of the city.

I remember so well the 90’s and 2000’s when we wallowed in the demise of the steel and coal industries and felt we were victims of the past.

Richard Wright of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce Richard Wright of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce
Richard Wright of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce

Not now.

We have much more confidence in ourselves to become real contributors to a future international world. We’ve had the confidence to close things like Sheffield airport, Don Valley stadium and indeed bin the big city centre retail development (Hammersons).

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Instead, we have the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District, the Olympic Legacy Park, the Digital Campus, the mixed-use Heart of the City, vocational education routes and are looking at the city centre extreme sports park.

This is becoming a destination city with its own culture, areas of expertise and a huge variety of offer. People will want to work in, live in and visit it.

What would you have done differently?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. The one thing we have not done in my period of office which we should have is break down the big social divisions in the city.

This probably sounds strange from a guy leading a private sector membership organisation whose natural place is talking about growing the economy.

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However sitting here when five wards of our city have child poverty levels above 50 per cent is not something we can be proud of.

Tackling it is the right thing to do morally but I wish I had worked harder at making the case that it is the right thing to do economically.

We have great companies, great areas to live but we have a long tail of companies that are not as good, and many areas which aren’t great to live in.

They drag down average productivity, disproportionately use benefits, the NHS, social services etc.

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In the devolution culture of the current government cities will increasingly be expected to support themselves through business rates and council tax.

There will be less income from central government. We won't be able to afford poverty. Employers need to play their part in tackling this problem and the Chamber should help coordinate that work.

The only other area I want to briefly mention is the environmental issue. The planet is our legacy to future generations and I’m afraid we aren’t doing very well at protecting it. Again, employers need to play a more active part in addressing the issue. Every employer should have the ambition to be carbon neutral by 2025 and the Chamber should be there to help them achieve it.

What do you think of Sheffield's business nous?

We are so much better than we were but we still have further to go. We have some of the best businesses in the world but we have a long tail of ones that need to be more resilient, forward thinking, strategic and in control of their own destinies. I really do think we are getting past the dependency culture where government handouts were seen as a real objective but it’s a hard journey and there have been, and will be, casualties. We still need more hi-tech start-ups and more of an enterprise culture.

What is your advice to your successor?

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Keep an eye on the future. A Chamber must be a thought leader and help cities and employers achieve the future. It's easy to get drawn into the issues of today and get diverted. There are a number of single sector focus groups in the city. The Chamber has the responsibility of covering the whole economy and providing balance in its arguments and ambition.

And lastly, what will you be doing instead?

I’m going to take life a little easier and travel with my wife (we have a new motorhome) but I’ll still be chair of the UTC multi-academy trust and involved in the Derbyshire NHS. I haven’t bought a zimmer frame yet though so don’t write me off altogether.