Changing the city centre for the 21st century
“Fargate has been neglected. Some of the city centre is fabulous but this part has been forgotten about.”
Lorraine Lee is standing outside Sports Direct, surveying the city centre where she has shopped her whole life.
When we arranged a walkabout with senior councillors and officers, we decided to bring along Lorraine, from Gleadless Valley, as a surprise guest.
Who better to tell the council what needs doing than someone who is born and bred in the city, has seen the Hole in the Road and Goodwin Fountain come and go and who worked as a sales assistant at Marks and Spencer?
“When I told my friends I was doing this, so many of them wanted to comment,” she says. “People all feel the same. Fargate has been forgotten about.”
We’re joined by Coun Mazher Iqbal, cabinet member for business and development, city centre manager Richard Eyre and the director of city centre development, Nalin Seneviratne.
The city centre is undergoing a transformation with the Heart of the City II redevelopment and shops such as Next moving from Fargate to The Moor. It’s likely The Moor will become the focal point for big stores while Fargate will become an area where people live and socialise.
“We want more people living and working here,” says Mazher. “If we have more people here then businesses will come.
“We are looking at apartments above Sports Direct so people stay in the city centre. It provides housing for people and helps give businesses more confidence in an area.
“Heart of the City II was going to be a huge retail scheme but we looked at other cities and brought that knowledge back and we have changed it to having more people working and living here.”
Richard nods towards High Street where there’s a mess of road, tramlines and bollards. “We even want to deal with things like that,” he says.
“The Government has released a Future High Streets fund where cities and towns can bid for money. There’s £560 million and Sheffield is putting a bid in. It can be used on infrastructure like roads. There’s not a lot we can do with the tram lines but we can smarten up the area.”
Nalin says Sheffield is facing the same challenges as every other town and city. “Our shopping behaviour has changed. There always used to be the top four supermarkets and now we have Aldi and Lidl.
“Even the big supermarkets have changed because they are now opening small shops on every little corner. The big four has occupied that corner shop market.
“Everything is going through a massive change and the internet has become the department store. You can sit in your armchair and shop in every department of that store.”
Lorraine shakes her head. “I don’t like internet shopping, I like to browse. I like to touch fabrics or smell perfumes.”
Nalin agrees. “It’s not for everybody and that’s the challenge. We have some really successful retailers that are getting it right, such as John Lewis. We have people who started off as internet retailers that now want a physical presence because they realise people like to go and see the products, touch them and talk to somebody about them.”
We arrive at Chapel Walk – the scaffolding which has covered it for a year should finally be gone by June.
For Lorraine, this is a blot on Fargate’s landscape. “It’s dull and dismal and I won’t even walk through it any more. There are some lovely little shops down there but there are a lot of vagrants in the doorways and it feels dark and unsafe.
“The Crucible, Lyceum and Tudor Square are fabulous but there is nothing on Chapel Walk. It used to be very busy with so many shops and packed with people. It really needs bringing back into use.”
Everyone agrees. “There were issues with the building having asbestos,” explains Mazher. “Once completed, we will have 80 people living there.”
One idea – which depends on finances – is whether Chapel Walk can be temporarily covered in brightly coloured umbrellas to act as a multicoloured canopy. Richard shows Lorraine the plans, along with some block paving ideas similar to Barcelona, and she is enthusiastic.
We pause outside the old Virgin shop at the entrance to Chapel Walk, which is now empty and covered in fly posters.
Richard explains: “Virgin has three years left on this lease so the landlord doesn’t need to do anything with that empty building. A lot of people want to see pop-up shops but we have to deal with private landlords.”
Mazher adds: “For the last couple of years we have seen lots of shops shut so a landlord may decide to reduce the rent. Some landlords would rather have somebody in there but some have leases for 30 years so to get out of them becomes difficult.
“We want to be more flexible with planning applications and if a building has been empty we want something in there rather than just a boarded-up building.
“We are skint as a council so if we had the cash these guys would be out spending it and making it work. If Sheffield was in this position on its own we could say something is wrong here but London and other major cities are all struggling.”
Even small improvements can make a difference. Lorraine says: “Fargate has some beautiful buildings if you look up, they have been there since my grandma’s time, but there is not a lot else to look at.
“The only things which seem to open are banks and mobile phone shops. All you have is Boots, M&S and a couple of fashion shops. I retired from M&S so I still like to shop there and see my old colleagues.
“The Peace Gardens are lovely, you can sit outside at a cafe and meet friends but you can’t do that on Fargate. There’s hardly any benches to sit on.
“I don’t like Meadowhall, I prefer being in the fresh air of the city centre and will come here even when it’s raining with my brolly, but I like to sit down with my friends and have a natter.”
Mazher agrees: “The footfall on Fargate is amazing and people need to sit down and relax.
“Unfortunately under planning law we can’t dictate which type of shops open. I live in Darnall and we have 14 barbers and five betting shops but planning laws don’t allow us to control that. If a shop has been empty for a while it needs occupying.”
Nalin adds: “Fargate was last refurbished 25 years ago and it’s become tired. Before shopping was about anchor stores but now it’s all about mixing things up. We want to look at what we can do to improve the public realm and allow different uses.
“We are all glued to our mobile phones which is why there are so many phone shops.”
We’re outside a large empty store opposite Marks and Spencer. Lorraine says: “Birds Yard is such a fantastic shop and if they could afford to come into a big empty shop like this it would be great.”
One of the major issues with Fargate is the piecemeal ownership. Actually speaking to someone about a building can be an impossible task as some are wrapped in a tangle of anonymous property companies and fund managers.
Nalin explains: “Fargate is all owned by different people and that’s a problem up and down the country.
“Even London has problems trying to work out how to deal with the changes in retail. Regent Street is a Crown estate but where it meets Oxford Street it’s owned by all sorts of different people.
“How do we get to these owners? Some of these shops are just a number on a spreadsheet with a fund manager, we can’t even talk to people about them.”
As the walkabout comes to a close, Lorraine says she understands more about the struggles the council is facing.
“You can see money is tight and there’s a big problem with landlords but I really hope they can make some of the changes they have mentioned, such as the umbrellas over Chapel Walk.”
It’s a bright, sunny day and a coffee outside a cafe looks appealing. Richard says: “We are working with cafes to put tables and chairs outside and we want to bring in some pop-up restaurants. If you look down Norfolk Row, there are people sitting outside the cafe and restaurant. When the sun is shining, Sheffield city centre is lovely.”