Sheffield residents were invited to the new Sheffield Plate food hall in Orchard Square for the Sheffield At A Crossroads event, to make their voices heard on issues such as footfall, transport, living in the city centre, the city’s climate impact and crime.
And an expert panel consisting of the council chief, community workers, business owners and developers were on hand answer the public’s questions and to give their own perspective on where Sheffield might be headed, as well as their hopes and ambitions for the city’s future.
The first question came from Patrick Meleady, who asked when we could expect the city centre’s footfall to return to pre-pandemic levels, and the panel used the opportunity to highlight what they thought needed to be done to make the most of the city’s reopening.
Kate Josephs, CEO of Sheffield City Council, pointed to recent data which showed that Sheffield city centre’s footfall was already back to 89 per cent of what it was pre-pandemic – a significantly faster recovery than most cities, as the national average is 73 per cent.
She said: “Sheffield is the country’s top city in terms of this recovery. People may dispute that, but that is the data. We are seeing a lot of people choosing Sheffield as a place to visit and spend time.
"We are also in a period where we see huge amounts of development happening, though some of it may seem very distant. But we can imagine what things are going to be like.
"The city has £20 million funding from the future high street fund for Fargate, and another £20 million for Castlegate from the levelling up fund. We have a really exciting plan for the future: we are at a changing point but we need to have patience.
However, speaking from her own experience as a Sheffield resident, Mrs Josephs admitted a sense of ‘disconnectedness’ to Sheffield.
She said: “There are pockets of independent businesses and great residential parts, but there is not a spine that runs through it all. We need to create that.”
On this point, community worker Lloyd Samuels, of Sheffield Youth, Neighbourhoods and Communities, said that any future development of Sheffield as a city should be done ‘without prejudice’ for certain areas – and should not focus entirely on the city centre if Sheffield is to improve as a whole and escape this ‘disconnection’.
He highlighted the fact that different areas in Sheffield also have their own ‘centres’, and that these need to be developed alongside the main centre, to ensure certain parts of the city do not get left behind.
Mr Samuels said that Sheffield needed to ‘shout about’ its identity and ‘lean on its heritage’ as a major selling point – like cities such as Manchester and Liverpool do. He referenced Sheffield as a ‘city of football’ and a ‘city of steel’.
And he said that such a collective identity spanning the city could not be achieved without better public transport linking people from different areas together and improving accessibility to the centre for all.
"When I first moved here 20 years ago there was a thriving city centre,” he said. “The difference then was that I could catch a bus from one side of the city to the other. As a customer, I felt accounted for.”
Thomas Atkin asked the panel what adjustments they felt needed to be made to the tram system in Sheffield in order to improve connections across the city.
He mentioned the fact that Manchester has tripled the size of its tram network since the 1990s, yet Sheffield has only added two stops since 1995.
Arnie Singh, managing director of City Taxis, said that the number one extension necessary is to extend the line to the Northern General Hospital, which he said ‘should have been part of the network from day one’.
He added: “We make so many taxi journeys there, and it is difficult to park.
"I would also like to link up the Woodseats corridor up to Meadowhead, and also to extend the line past Hillsborough up to Stocksbridge to make it easy for these people to access the centre.”
And Mrs Josephs also supported the idea of using public transport to better link the parts of the city. She said that places further afield across South Yorkshire should not be forgotten, including Doncaster, Rotherham and Barnsley, and said she would like to see the use and expansion of the infrastructure and technology already available to Sheffield in the tram train.
Mr Samuels brought public transport to the conversation again regarding the city’s future as an eco-friendly place to live and work. He said it enabled people to make use of the city’s renowned green spaces, as well as gave people alternatives to private vehicles.
Responding to public questions about Sheffield’s status as a ‘green city’, Kate Josephs agreed that investment in public transport was essential. However, she said the money to do so ‘was not in the council’s coffers’.
But she added that the money for this investment – along with various net zero projects aimed at ensuring the council meets its climate crisis declaration promises – could be available elsewhere and said she ‘believed the potential was there’.
Mr Singh added that City Taxis hopes to have a fully electric fleet by 2025, but that will only be possible if the council invests in or finds investment for charging points.
"I want Sheffield to have the first full electric vehicle fleet in the country,” he said. “We have had conversations with Renault about intrioducing these vehicles to our fleet and they are up for it.
"But we can’t do this while there are charging restrictions. There are not enoughy charging points for 1500 more vehicles. We need to work with SCC on creating that infrastructure.”
The lives of people who don’t travel to the city centre but live there all the time were also discussed by the panel.
Peter Sephton, who lives in the Glossop Road baths, asked what kind of buildings the panel thought should be built in Sheffield to ensure the growing community of city centre residents is a mixed one.
John Heller, a developer and chief executive of LAB plc, which owns Orchard Square, told the forum that he believed independent businesses, recreational and residential areas – rather than major retailers – were at the heart of a successful future for Sheffield city centre.
He said that national chains such as John Lewis ‘did not close because so many people were using them’ and said large buildings like that one were a ‘big opportunity’. He explained that housing in the city centre helped encourage night life and made more people want to live there.
He said: “I think the best thing to do is build a range of apartments sizes including ones that will attract families – ones with three bedrooms."
And he added – admitting his view was controversial – that more needs to be done to attract delevopers to build in Sheffield, including ‘higher towers’ and a reduction in the requirement for affordable housing.
"At the moment property values in the city are low compared to the cost of building them,” he said. “The requirement for affordable housing puts developers off. If they can get round that then more developers will build and the value of property will rise."
Mr Heller suggested that if the value of houses rose in the city, then developers would be more willing to build. He also suggested the non-affordable housing would sell for a high enough rate that they could then build more affordable housing with less concern over whether they would make enough money.
Meanwhile, Dame Julie kenny, sitting on the panel, said the work of community groups such as residents’ organisation ChangingSheff – which Mr Sephton chairs – were the way forward in ensuring the city centre changed in a way that suited its residents.
"The council does not have all the ideas,” she said. “I encourage organisations to work with the council to bring forward their own ideas.”
The discussion was rounded off by a friend of Mohammed Issa Koroma – the young man who was stabbed in Sheffield City Centre earlier this year – asking what could be done to make Sheffield a safe place for people spending time there.
Mr Samuels said more needed to be done to help reduce ‘the fear people have coming into the city centre’.
"The murder in the city centre was a flag telling people to take action,” he said. “We need to have a community-based. We need to stop this autocratic belief that the police will sort everything and have a volunteer-led approach to helping the community in the city centre.”