Alan Biggs: £40m well-being project to restore Sheffield pride

Richard Caborn
Richard Caborn
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He’s the public face behind Sheffield’s bid to redeem an Olympic legacy on behalf of the face of the Games.. and both faces have felt the full force of a slap.

When news broke of Don Valley Stadium’s closure, no-one other than Jessica Ennis-Hill felt the sting more than Richard Caborn.

But today Sheffield’s veteran Parliamentarian reveals that he is “more than a quarter of the way” towards securing funding for the £40m project which he believes will restore and swell the city’s sporting pride.

Is he going to raise all of the cash? “The answer to that is yes,” says the former Minister of Sport. “I am absolutely confident.”

How? “I would be disappointed if we couldn’t raise more than half of it from the public sector and then challenge the private sector to match it.”

We are meeting over a coffee in the Copthorne Hotel at Caborn’s beloved Bramall Lane. His eyes gleam and his glasses flash as he talks feverishly about delivering a rescue vision that many dismissed, when it was unveiled in March, as pie in the sky.

The scepticism was understandable. No sooner had Ennis-Hill won gold than her home city set about knocking down the symbol of her success. But Caborn, Sheffielder born and bred, insists: “I think we are over that now.”

He argues it is not only the movers and shakers who are ‘buying in’, as he calls it, to a “sports and well-being park” that will exist alongside a rugby stadium (for both Sheffield Eagles and Rotherham Titans) and fresh facilities for basketball, gymnastics and snookerbesides the already advanced regeneration of Woodbourn Road for athletics.

“This is probably the first time I’ve been involved in a project - and I’ve been involved in many in this city - when all sections of the city are saying ‘we want to do it’ and have a vested interest as well,” says the 69-year-old former Sheffield Central MP. “It’s such a privilege to do this. And a challenge.”

Yet Caborn’s mission started in anguish as he kept his powder dry by observing a self-imposed silence over the DVS controversy. “The publicity was damaging and I felt it very much,” he admits, having already been privately approached by Sheffield council leader Julie Dore about providing an alternative.

“People were looking at the fantastic achievement of Jess and others. Yes, it was damaging, no doubt about that.

“But what I wasn’t prepared to do was unveil our plans until I got the buy-in from every one of the actors on the stage. Do you mitigate against bad publicity or do you make sure everyone has bought into what you are doing? I believed the latter was important.

“I’d gone to the two universities, the teaching hospital, the local enterprise partnership, Sport England and the City College. We had all the main actors on the stage.”

Armed with the conviction and the contacts that spawned the DVS itself in the build-up to the 1991 World Student Games and then the English Institute of Sport, Caborn was convinced he had a winning package. But it is not only about getting people first past the post.

“We have a responsibility to look at how we can translate physical activity into general wellness,” he said. “Sheffield is a get-up-and-go city. People are living longer; we need the health agenda.”

Potentially lucrative investment from the medical field is not to be overlooked, either. “It has been about looking out of the box at what sport can actually bring,” Caborn added. “One of the things I’ve always wanted to do is harness the huge amount of intellectual property that comes from pushing athletes to extremes.

“I make the analogy that what happens in Formula One today knocks on to the car market tomorrow. It’s called technology transfer. If you are pushing athletes to the limit then you are throwing off a lot of knowledge. That ought to be translated into facilities for other athletes - but also the general populace as well.

“That’s why this is the largest Olympic legacy outside London.”

And yet the cost is fractional compared to the amounts lavished on the Olympic Stadium both before and after the Games.

“Let’s put it into context,” says Caborn. “Yes, £40m is a massive amount and certainly so to people in the street. But it’s only one-fifth of what it’s costing to convert the Olympic Stadium into football and athletics mode - on top of the £500m already spent.

“You catch me at the point where the design brief will be going out, hopefully no later than the end of the month. I’m not sure it’s all going to add up to £40m; it might be a bit less, it could be a little more.

“But I am sure we are on course to write the next chapter in the book of Sheffield, city of sport.”