"We feel confident about being who we are": Sheffield's vibrancy soars but challenges remain

John Mothersole, Sheffield Council chief executive, Laura Bennett, LEP board member and Sam Champan, of The Floow. Picture: Graham Dunn
John Mothersole, Sheffield Council chief executive, Laura Bennett, LEP board member and Sam Champan, of The Floow. Picture: Graham Dunn
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Sheffield's vibrancy has grown so much in the past five years that it is now England's most improved place.

The city leapt 96 positions in a national index - a change put down to its economy becoming 'more resilient'.

Sheffield is the most improved place in the UK, according to the vibrancy index

Sheffield is the most improved place in the UK, according to the vibrancy index

The number of completed, newly-built houses stood at 1,090 in 2017 - up from 370 half a decade ago - average salaries have risen by 13 per cent and over 900 young people have secured apprenticeships since 2013.

But Sheffield is struggling to keep its university graduates - challenging a 'myth' that the city has a high student retention rate - and needs to represent women and ethnic minorities more effectively, a gathering of leading local figures heard.

The #VibrantSheffield Live! event took place at the Crucible theatre, organised by business and financial adviser Grant Thornton, which compiled the Vibrant Economy Index. Attended by 400 individuals from the private, public and third sectors, the aim was to discuss successes and the benefits of collaboration.

In 2013, Sheffield languished in the bottom 40 per cent of the index, but this year achieved a score of 100 - the national average - lifting it from 233rd to 138th place in the table, which ranks 324 local authority areas. Cambridge emerged as the most vibrant location, with Blackpool coming last.

Channel 4 has been offered a space at Park Hill as part of Sheffield's 'challenging, cheeky' bid to offer the broadcaster a regional home.

Channel 4 has been offered a space at Park Hill as part of Sheffield's 'challenging, cheeky' bid to offer the broadcaster a regional home.

John Mothersole, chief executive of Sheffield Council, said the city had become more adept at playing to its strengths.

"It's something that's frustrated me for many a long year - a lack of confidence where people would say 'If only we were like Manchester or Leeds'. We'll never be like them, and they'll never be like us. There are some challenges in the city still, but lots of things are going well. In recent years we've turned a corner and we feel confident about being who we are."

Mr Mothersole said he felt most proud of Sheffield's bid to become a new regional home for part of Channel 4. Space at the revamped Park Hill estate has been offered to the broadcaster as a potential base.

"We really went out on a limb on that one. We put in a really challenging, ballsy, cheeky bid. It's a style of bid I don't think any other city could have done, or would have dared to have done. It's a style of bid we wouldn't have dared to have done two years ago."

It has long been claimed that Sheffield has a high rate of students who settle here for good after graduating. However, Conor Moss, director of education and employer partnerships at Sheffield Hallam University, dismissed this idea.

"There's a myth that Sheffield has a greater retention of students. It is struggling to retain graduate talent after job one. With jobs two and three we're seeing migration - talent is either setting up their business elsewhere, or moving to Leeds, Manchester, the Midlands or London."

A scheme is being developed called the Sheffield Leaders Programme to address the issue, he said. "How do we create a community of graduates that feel they want to contribute to Sheffield?"

Paul Houghton, who heads Grant Thornton's Sheffield office, admitted the city's leadership was often 'very white and male'. Kisha Bradley, a mixed-race engineer who founded Bright Box Makerspace, said she was trying to remedy this through her project #girlswithdrills, which encourages children to learn useful skills, while Annalisa Toccara explained why she founded Our Mel, a social enterprise that explores black history.

"There was a gap on the cultural scene in Sheffield," said Annalisa. "The whole BAME community had been forgotten about."

Universities themselves must rethink their purpose, said Hallam's vice-chancellor Prof Chris Husbands, who asked 'whether the model we have had for so long is what we need to carry us forward'. Hallam is to spend £220 million on the first stage of its campus masterplan, designed to make it the world's leading 'applied university' - an institution that prepares students for specific vocations - and focus its activities on the city centre.

"One of the mistakes made in this country in the 1960s when new universities were established - Essex, East Anglia and so on - is they were put on greenfield sites. They were separate from the community."

Mike Hague, of Idaq, gave an update on the roll-out of free wi-fi in Sheffield city centre. The network will be able to support 30,000 users with the first wireless internet zone, covering The Moor, Fargate, Pinstone Street and Tudor Square, arriving this summer. A further three phases will follow by the end of December, encompassing West Street, Division Street, the railway station and the Cultural Industries Quarter.

"It provides a platform for a whole host of innovative things," said Mr Hague.

Businesses were highlighted, including Wicker-based The Floow, which writes smartphone software that tracks driver behaviour and is used by insurers to set premiums, and Zoo Digital, a partner of Netflix and Amazon.

Prof Vanessa Toulmin, Sheffield University's director of city and culture who commissioned a series of reports, including papers on the local beer and music scenes, said there was still plenty that went under the radar. "I didn't know we had 68 recording studios. We hear all these stories about Sheffield and I was quite sceptical; as an academic I wanted proof."

Grant Thornton has launched a dedicated app to accompany its index. To download, search for 'vibrant economy' in the app store on a mobile device.