The council chief who led Sheffield city centre's regeneration has retired after 36 years – and this is his legacy
“It’s weird to leave an organisation having not really seen most of my colleagues for the last eight months other than on Zoom,” says Simon Ogden, who is retiring after a career at Sheffield Council spanning more than 35 years, a period in which he rose to become the authority’s head of city centre regeneration.
“I was planning to go at Easter but I postponed it to try and get a few things finished. It's a big change, but I feel fortunate. I'd gone down to three days a week, so I've had one foot in retirement for a couple of years. A lot of people end their careers very suddenly because there's a need for cost savings or there's a deal they're offering. I've seen people make up their mind in a fortnight to retire.”
Since 2018 Simon has led the council’s Castlegate programme, which aims to transform the spot where Sheffield was first established centuries ago.
That scheme is hugely important in itself, but the list of projects Simon has helped to steer over the years reads like a history of the city over the past three decades, from the restoration of the Wicker Arches in the 1980s to the 1990s’ impressive Peace Gardens revamp, 2013’s new Moor Market and the highly acclaimed Grey to Green initiative which has brightened up roads with plant life.
Born in Lancaster, he spent his teens in Newcastle and studied history at Cambridge before taking a degree in town planning at Sheffield University in 1974. His upbringing in the North East inspired his decision to be a planner – at the time, Newcastle’s council was led by T Dan Smith, who had ambitions to create a modernist ‘Brasilia of the North’.
Simon spent time at Rotherham Council and the old South Yorkshire County council in Barnsley before joining Sheffield in 1984.
"I got to see for just a few years Sheffield still in its confident but grimy industrial prime,” he says. “I then saw with dismay the destruction and despair which descended over the Thatcher years and was caught up in some of South Yorkshire’s many attempts to resist that decline, most of which ended in defeat.”
From 1986 he began focusing on parts of Sheffield that needed reviving. He was responsible for dealing with the aftermath of the big steel factory closures in the Lower Don Valley, which led to the construction of Meadowhall, and then the £130 million Heart of the City scheme that brought the Millennium Gallery, the Winter Garden and much more.
He was head of city centre regeneration for 14 years from 2004 to 2018. Asked which projects he feels were the most successful, the Peace Gardens comes top of his list.
“I'm not saying we got everything right, that would be ridiculous, but it stands up very well given it's now 22 years old,” says Simon. “It still does what we hoped it would do in that it's clearly the centre of the city, well-maintained, enjoyed by all kinds of people. It's a benchmark for how we would like the city to be seen.”
He has a particular interest in the rivers that originally powered Sheffield’s growth, and set up the Sheaf and Porter Trust to try to ‘de-culvert’ the city’s hidden waterways. Opening up rivers with pocket parks is another idea that has ‘stood the test of time’, says Simon.
“The fact we've got the River Stewardship Company, the Upper Don Trust, Friends of the Blue Loop and the Sheaf and Porter Trust - that activism - is something quite unusual. The stewardship company I think is unique, I don't think there's another city in the UK that has a dedicated river stewardship social enterprise. That's of lasting value.”
Some ambitions haven’t been realised to his satisfaction, Simon admits.
“I'm disappointed we so far haven't managed to connect The Moor back to London Road. That's still a missing link.”
But patience is a virtue where regeneration is concerned, he says.
"Especially in difficult economic times – and we've had quite a few of those – things take a long time. It's important there are people who remember what the original purpose of these things was and make sure the benefits get achieved in the end, which is why I think it's important that there is an in-house regeneration team."
He adds: “We enhanced Barker's Pool in about 2004 and yet it's only really in the last two years that what we'd always envisaged – that the buildings around the City Hall would open up on the ground floor with restaurants, cafés and shops – has happened.”
Simon has a hunch that, after the pandemic, there will be ‘a huge pent-up appetite for people to experience the city again, getting together and enjoying it’.
"Whether that comes back in exactly the same way for retail is another question. That's partly the importance of what we've been doing at Castlegate, to really think what a city centre can be like without reliance on major retail. It is a bit of a laboratory.”
He feels Castlegate and tackling climate change should be top priorities for Sheffield Council’s recently-appointed leader Bob Johnson and new chief executive Kate Josephs.
“Castlegate is very much a work in progress. Flood defences, more active travel – those things I think are absolutely top of the agenda.”
He adds: “Urban regeneration is never finished and I look forward to many more chapters in the story. But I do also have grave fears about the future of our town planning system which has been under attack nationally and locally, leaving it severely weakened at a time when it is sorely needed.”
Simon, 67, plans to use his retirement spending ‘quality time’ with his partner Jo, as well as ‘picking up long-neglected hobbies’ such as writing about urban history.
"I'll continue to be active in river regeneration. I'll contribute as I can.”