Planning, pollution, parking and public transport – new cabinet member’s portfolio
“I probably have the most controversial portfolio,” admits Coun Bob Johnson.
He’s not wrong. This is the man who is now in charge of the long-awaited Local Plan, the proposed Clean Air Zone in the city centre and licensing with Spearmint Rhino.
Coun Johnson is the new cabinet member for transport and development and, along with dealing with some of the city’s most contentious issues, he’s also keenly aware they are time sensitive.
There have been constant questions about when the Local Plan is going to be published, demands for consultation on the Clean Air Zone and Spearmint Rhino is due before the licensing committee within the next month or so.
“The Local Plan needs to be finalised and that is definitely a priority,” he says, over a coffee in Hillsborough, where he has been a ward councillor for eight years.
“I don’t want to do a paper exercise, we will consult with people. I am determined I want to do this with people, rather than to them. I want to be judged on what I have delivered, not what I promise to deliver.
“I have lived in Sheffield all my life and I have no appetite to destroy the Green Belt. There has been a lot of publicity about protecting green spaces and that is important but a big part of this is getting the right type of housing.
“The Government gave us a target of building 40,000 houses but that’s just a number, I prefer to think of them as homes.
“Part of the work is looking at the type of houses we need so we can work out what type of stock we have and what is required. It’s also the type of tenure that’s important. This is key and something which has been overlooked.
“If you look at my ward of Hillsborough there is a lot of private housing but not much social housing, but if you go up the road to S5 they have an abundance of social housing and not a lot of private. It’s about getting that mix right. That is something which has been hugely overlooked.”
He knows only too well that the Local Plan could be controversial as it tries to strike a balance between building new homes and preserving green space.
“New developments are not very popular until people’s children or grandchildren need to find a house. If we don’t tackle the housing crisis now, we are storing up problems for the future,” he added.
“Everyone likes to think of Sheffield as a collection of villages but we are a major city and we have to make decisions on either spreading out or going up. They are the only real options.”
The Clean Air Zone has to be in place by 2021 and the first consultation is starting soon.
“I have been meeting with taxi drivers and it’s fair to say they are not happy, this is a big ask,” he says.
“It is compulsory though and if we can’t come up with a solution, the Government could impose stricter conditions and we want to avoid that.
“Certainly the most polluting vehicles are the older buses and taxis and private vans are also being looked at. I have no appetite for hanging taxi drivers out to dry – it’s about working with the trade. They are well aware that the Government will come in and impose conditions.”
The coffee shop is by the Supertram tracks, which prompts a conversation about how people can move across the city.
“Public transport is unreliable and unco-ordinated. The difficulty we have is that passenger numbers fall so bus routes become less viable and it becomes a downward spiral.
“It’s something we need to address, I can’t force people to use public transport, especially when the proper infrastructure isn’t there.”
He gazes out of a window and nods to a cyclist trying to negotiate his way through the tram tracks, bus lanes and busy traffic.
“Cycling is another issue – what would make me want to cycle? At the minute, I don’t know.”
He pauses then laughs: “I am determined to give one of these electric bikes a go if it can get up my hill.“
As he heads out for a meeting with parents, we touch on pavement parking and the ongoing complaints about it.
“The council wants greater powers to deal with this. Parking, idling and congestion around schools is a particular problem and I am interested in looking at all the options. I very much want to work with people on these issues.”