The Star Interview with Richard Blackledge: Sheffield’s leisure time top of agenda for council chief

Paul Billington Head of Leisure at Sheffield City Council in Tudor Square
Paul Billington Head of Leisure at Sheffield City Council in Tudor Square
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From overseeing Sheffield’s parks and sport to its arts and major events, leisure chief Paul Billington’s brief is one of the highest-profile at the city council, covering services enjoyed by thousands.

By law, of all the things the director of culture and environment is responsible for, the only facility his department is duty-bound to provide is allotments.

Paul Billington Head of Leisure at Sheffield City Council in Tudor Square

Paul Billington Head of Leisure at Sheffield City Council in Tudor Square

But after six years in which the council has had to make more than £350 million in savings, Mr Billington believes Sheffield’s green spaces, cultural venues and leisure facilities have been protected from too many damaging and irreversible cuts precisely because they are so well-loved.

“We could be seen as more vulnerable,” he says.

“But the upside is because what we do is so visible, and in virtually every case popular with the public, that the political commitment to the things we do is significant. So we’re not statutory, and we could be cut, but to be fair to the council, because lots of people value what we do, we’ve tried to minimise the reductions on services.”

Mr Billington has been in his current role for nearly a decade, but joined the council in the mid-1980s. “A long time ago when things were very different,” he smiles.

Today’s cuts are ‘possibly worse’ than those of 30 years ago, though, he quickly adds.

“Some of the easier reductions were made a long time ago and to do it again means you’re really into the harder stuff. A good example is if you think about the sports facilities that have been, in Sheffield’s case, managed by an independent charitable trust for a number of years – as have the museums – that delivered savings in the 1990s and beyond.

“Many councils, including some of the big cities, are just starting to look at that option. We’ve done that already and we’re still having to make the same level of savings that they are.”

Controversial changes proposed on Mr Billington’s watch include the closure of Don Valley Stadium and the loss of Stocksbridge Leisure Centre. Even the sale of Cobnar Cottage – a dilapidated building on the edge of Graves Park – was fiercely opposed by protesters.

Public opposition ‘can be a headache’, he accepts. “But really it’s a good headache, because the fact people get so animated and sometimes angry about their parks and sports facilities, ultimately it’s really positive because it shows they care. If the council was suggesting things, and nobody said anything, it’s probably because they weren’t interested. And that really would be sad.”

Mr Billington is one of the council’s top earners, with a pay packet of £80,000 a year. He exudes a genuine passion and enthusiasm for local issues, and says he enjoys the fact that ‘no two days are the same’.

“I think I’m lucky, virtually everything I’m involved in is important to the public and therefore important to the politicians. A lot of what the council does is invisible to people. For me the excitement comes from knowing you can actually see some difference, whether you’re walking in a park or you’re driving along Bochum Parkway and you can see a brand-new leisure centre, or just small things like improving a football pitch or new allotments in Totley.

“It’s exciting but it’s also a privileged position, to have that level of influence. But anything I do works through the political process. Key decisions that are made aren’t necessarily mine.”

He’s proud of ‘retaining quality spaces in the city centre’, such as the Peace Gardens and Winter Garden, as well as ‘managing to square the circle’ amid reductions to the parks budget and helping to bring in £35m of investment for sites such as Thorncliffe and Graves sports centres, with their accompanying FA football hubs.

Although the council acts as the landlord for facilities such as Ponds Forge and the City Hall, the majority are run by Sheffield International Venues, including Sheffield Arena, which has been managed ‘in house’ since March and has managed to fend off rivalry from Leeds’ city centre arena, Mr Billington contends.

“There was a lot of concern at the time the Leeds Arena was being planned and immediately following its opening, but I’m pleased to say Sheffield Arena continues to perform extremely well and remains a success.”

Asked whether the council would consider matching Leeds’ model with a city centre arena, he offers: “I’ve no reason to think it would be anywhere else.”

The decision to shut Don Valley Stadium has been justified in the last three years, the director maintains.

“Don Valley was operated at incredibly high levels of subsidy with low levels of usage. The choice was, do we close the stadium and save £700,000, or close three or four swimming pools. I still think in the difficult circumstances that we faced, Don Valley was the one that would have the least worst impact on Sheffield.”

Meanwhile a project run alongside the National Trust, looking at creating an endowment fund and charitable body to maintain Sheffield’s parks, has concluded, with the idea shelved.

“For now we will leave things as they are. The idea of creating the endowment fund of at least £100m is a major challenge. The new body would be a fledgling charity asked to pick up the responsibility of around 800 green sites.”

Later this month the first Asda Foundation Sheffield 10K will be held – the successor to the Great Yorkshire Run in the city centre. Jane Tomlinson’s Run for All is now in charge of the event, adding to its stewardship of Sheffield’s half marathon, after the council parted ways with Nova International which owns the Great Run brand.

The council is in line for a better deal by receiving a share of income from the race. Mr Billington was ‘not surprised’ or ‘particularly threatened’ by Nova’s decision to stage the Great Yorkshire Run in Harrogate in July, and says Sheffield can expect a ‘great day’ on October 30.

“We think we’ve got a better route and we’re pretty confident the numbers will grow. If you think about running in Sheffield, from the Parkruns through to Race for Life for women and girls, through to the 10k to the half marathon, there are stepping stones there for people if they want to increase their distances.”