SHEFFIELD city centre is dying – or at least that is the word on the High Street.
A forthcoming 17 per cent hike in on-street parking fees has been described as the final nail in the coffin for dwindling trade in the heart of the city, already fighting for survival in a recession.
Hopes for the future of the city centre now seem to be pinned on the long-delayed Sevenstone retail development – involving the relocation of John Lewis – which looks unlikely to get off the ground this year.
At a time when Leeds is celebrating the opening of a new state-of-the-art, £350 million shopping centre in the middle of the city centre, coupled with the anticipation of the opening of the nearby Leeds Arena in September, Sheffield seems to have adopted the role of its poor cousin.
To cite just one example, Topshop and Topman, one of the biggest retailers in the country, has opened a three-floor, 31,000 sq feet flagship store in Leeds Trinity. The chain’s premises in Sheffield’s Fargate doesn’t even have a shop window.
The announcement that the first tenants to sign up for the new development in the former TJ Hughes building are a discount sports brand, charity shop and Poundland seemed to further validate this notion.
Sheffield looks poised to become the bargain bin of city centre shopping, overrun with bookies and discount shops, while Leeds’ economy looks set for a boost.
So what can be done to make the fourth-largest city in the UK to attract more shoppers and prevent more store closures? What can be done to support independent businesses struggling to keep their heads above water?
Anne Lindley-French, marketing lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, says: “What we are seeing in the recession is shops changing the way they do things. They’re focusing on customers having an experience. In the future it will be about the brand, having a nice time in a shop.”
With its restaurants, cinema and plethora of leading brands under one roof which leads in to the main shopping street, Leeds Trinity does indeed offer more of a day out.
“The problem with Sheffield’s main street is perhaps it does not lend itself well that kind new of experience,” says Anne.
Sheffield’s shopping scene certainly has a lot to shout about, but it is its disjointed nature, having to navigate through different streets, which Anne thinks makes it visitor-unfriendly. In an age of instant gratification-shopping, this is a huge setback and one of the reasons people turn to Meadowhall, or travel to other cities to spend their cash.
She says: “Sheffield has so many good things. When we do projects they are always to a high quality. The trouble is that everything is in pockets.”
One of those pockets is Abbeydale Antiques Quarter, a hub of 30 businesses in the Abbeydale Road area specialising in all things retro and vintage.
Hendrika Stephens, who owns art shop The Corner and chairs the retail group, has raised concerns about parking as on-street fees are to rise from £1.70 per hour to £2.
She says: “Sheffield has a lot to offer which Leeds doesn’t. It’s a brilliant city, but I don’t think it sells itself well enough.
“The fact you have to pay for parking is really off-putting. People just go to Meadowhall instead.
“The council should be doing more to sell Sheffield. It is no longer a member of Visit Yorkshire, so any fliers barely mention Sheffield. When you arrive at the station here, you should be greeted by signs telling you about the great things we’ve got.”
There might be calls for Sheffield Council to do more but all parties concerned seem to agree the way forward is investment. One scheme which is moving forward is the current redevelopment of The Moor, with Sheffield Council developing a new indoor market and Scottish Widows Property Partnership Trust investing cash in the street itself.
A spokesman for The Moor redevelopment team said: “New retail lettings on The Moor are expected within the next month.”
Watching Leeds grab the headlines for its new developments might seem hard to take, but the message for the minute seems to be to keep the faith.