Sheffield needs to use all its talent, creativity and innovation to forge its own path as a northern powerhouse.
That’s the message from Lord David Blunkett, who has taken the role of chairman of the Sheffield Executive Board.
The board leads the Sheffield First partnership, which is made up of representatives from business, health, local government, education, faith and all other sectors across the city.
And the role of Sheffield First, is even more important in the face of ongoing cuts from central government, according to Lord Blunkett.
The former Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough MP says he took the unpaid chairman role because of his passion for the city.
He wants to make more people aware of what Sheffield First and its board does, while pressing ahead with a range of initiatives designed to make the city a fairer and better place to live.
“My task with the board, which we are probably going to call the partnership board, is to pull these initiatives together so that they relate to each other and constitute a clear programme for the future,” said Lord Blunkett.
“Sheffield is a great place with great people but it doesn’t always play to its strengths and draw on all the talent that exists. The standards are there, the initiatives are there.
“It’s not just about better co-operation, it’s about putting some oomph behind it so there is a sense of momentum and purpose.
“I got involved firstly because of a sheer love of Sheffield, and I want to see it succeed.
“We are coming through eye-watering austerity with cutbacks to services. We need to respond imaginatively and creatively to that challenge, and to develop a strategy for economic growth and success within this wider city region.
“The second reason is because I believe we have got to put the glue in, so when people talk about the city region and so on, we try to make it mean something to people.
“What happens in neighbourhoods and people’s lives is worthwhile to them, so we have got to try to relate what we are doing to make it feel as though it’s something to do with people in the community.”
The name Sheffield First may be familiar through projects such as the State of Sheffield Report, or the Sheffield Fair City Employer Charter. Some of these are specifically designed to help Sheffield residents in a way which can be seen and measured.
The charter, for instance, focuses on fairness for all staff and working towards the living wage.
Sheffield Executive Board vice chairman Neill Birchenall, who is also managing director of IT support firm Birchenall Howden, said: “It’s something that can be used by any employer from any sector as a conversation starter to challenge peers.
“It’s something that we use to get consistency. There is interest from other cities and it furthers the brand of Sheffield as a fair city.
“We are trying to lead the way with issues of fairness and opportunities, and these do not need to come at a cost of economic growth and prosperity.”
Another project is Sheffield Money. This is a not-for-profit community benefit society, which aims to give Sheffield residents access to better loans and financial advice.
“It’s a resource for the people of Sheffield to keep more money in the region by paying less for credit and getting a fair deal,” said Mr Birchenall.
“Any money that we can keep in the city will be spent in the city.
“No-one was more instrumental in setting it up than Peter Bradley, the Dean of Sheffield Cathedral. He is a board member and is representative of the faith sector as a whole. This was his passion and he really fought to make it happen with support from Sheffield First.”
But some Sheffield First projects can seem a little more obscure. One is Sheffield 2035, a 64-page ‘thinkpiece’ published in September 2014. The book looks at what the city could be in 2035, as well as the challenges it could face.
For the ordinary Sheffield resident, Sheffield 2035 might not seem particularly helpful. But for Sheffield First and the organisations that belong to it, the book is an important guide.
Mr Birchenall said the book involved ‘sitting down with the right people around the table to say this is what the city could look like’.
“We have formulated different visions and options. That brought about healthy discussion,” he said.
“It’s quite a long-term document. It’s quite easy for it to remain relevant because it’s looking so far into the future.
“So we have a document that we can base decisions on going forward. We can ask, is this going to take us towards or away from that? We can say we don’t want this or that.
“Issues regarding the city centre and transport came up that we can still see today. There are directions and priorities from the city council that are taking us in the direction we had all planned out.
“There are aspects of things like HS2 that came out in discussions when formulating 2035.”
The main advantage of Sheffield First though, according to Neil, is to get people from all sectors sat in a room, talking to each other. This then leads to action and the creation of projects and ideas that benefit the city as a whole.
“It’s an opportunity for communication. For leaders of the city to sit down and discuss the city. It’s representatives taking the time to consider the issues that impact the people that live here. It has huge value. I don’t know anything else like it,” said Mr Birchenall.
Recruiting Lord Blunkett has quickly raised the profile of Sheffield First, which is something the former Home Secretary is well aware of.
“I’m very mindful that I’m no longer elected,” he said. “I have a voice and a platform through the House of Lords. But I have got to be mindful that my job is to support and pull together other people, such as businesses, the voluntary sector or statutory bodies. They have to dovetail what they are doing with what other people are doing.
“I have got to get the businesses and the voluntary sector to feel that this is something that’s worth investing time and energy in.”
And with support for the Government’s Northern Powerhouse plan ebbing away, and devolution through the Sheffield City Region accelerating, Sheffield First’s role over the next few years is becoming more important.
“Let us make no mistake, there is not going to be large scale support from the Government,” said Lord Blunkett. “They have just cut 300 jobs from the Businesses, Enterprise and Skills department. There is no sign whatsoever of the promised investment in transport links across the Pennines.
“The message we are receiving is that we are on our own. There is no point in whinging. We have just got to get on with it. Sheffield needs to use all its talent, all the creative and innovative assets that we have to look to the future.”
* The photos of Sheffield on this page were taken by students from The Sheffield College. They were commissioned by Sheffield First as part of the 2016 State of Sheffield report, and were on display in the Winter Gardens earlier this month.