HEAVYWEIGHT political rivals Nick Clegg and David Blunkett shared a platform as civic leaders in Sheffield debated the challenges of the next decade.
Councillors, senior officers and leading figures from the business and voluntary sectors gathered for a ‘summit’.
And forceful views were expressed by the two high-profile local MPs with national government experience.
Mr Blunkett, Labour MP for Brightside and Hillsborough, warned the Deputy PM that his Government’s policies would lead Sheffield into a ‘post-Soviet’ scenario if it pushed ahead with swingeing cuts.
But Mr Clegg, the Lib Dem MP for Hallam, said it was vital the national deficit be reduced and said he remained an “upbeat optimist” for the city’s economic future.
Mr Blunkett claimed the Government was planning to scrap the area-based grant – worth £253m to the council until 2015 – although Mr Clegg denied that was on the cards.
“If that grant goes this city will be in meltdown. It will be almost like the post-Soviet position, with people fending for themselves. I think we should prepare for that.”
The former Home Secretary warned the cuts would hit the most vulnerable hardest and said he would ask the Equalities Commission to investigate whether the Government was fulfilling “its legal duty to the poorest”.
He called on council leader Paul Scriven to use his links with the Lib Dem leader to push for more resources for the city and contrasted the current position to that of the 1980s.
“When I led the council the Government hated our guts and we hated theirs. You have a line in to Government through your party. You need to use it.”
Mr Blunkett said to get through “draconian” spending cutbacks every public body in the city – including the two universities – would need to “be creative” about pooling resources.
At the Sheffield First Partnership ‘leadership summit’, held at the St Paul’s Mercure Hotel, Mr Clegg painted a rosier picture.
He used his speech to defend the Government’s actions, deflecting union claims that cuts would bring back the worst of the Thatcher years.
“It’s not going to be like the 1980s,” he said. “In the 1980s whole industries were decimated and whole communities were uprooted.
“To compare the two is totally and utterly wrong and will be confounded by what we are doing in the coming years.
“We are not going after particular industries or particular communities. We are trying to balance the books.
“People have got to recognise that there is nothing fair about us placing our debts on the shoulders of the next generation.”
He said Sheffield couldn’t “duck the difficult decisions” to cope with “the biggest upheaval in the post-war period”.
But he added: “We are trying to make sure the burden is shared fairly.
“If we can work across party lines, while taking the difficult decisions, I remain a very upbeat optimist for the future of our city.”
He also defended the coalition’s decision to scrap an £80m loan to Sheffield Forgemasters – whose chief executive Graham Honeyman was in the audience.
“Forgemasters has become a prism for which the whole debate about the future of the city has come to be seen,” he said. “It is simply not right that one decision alone represents a wider attitude about Sheffield.
“Our view was it was simply not affordable within this year’s budget.”
Sheffield Council’s chief executive John Mothersole, who is contemplating budget cuts of at least 30% over four years, said it had “not been pleasant to lose £6.5m in the middle of the year”.
But he added: “Let’s not grieve for the money that is going. Let’s get on and work out what we can do with the new circumstances.”
He called on businesses “to lead” and the public sector “to follow” so the city economy no longer relied so heavily on public sector employment.
“It’s going to be harder but we have got to make our own luck here,” he added. “It is all still to play for.”