Star Interview: How chief steers Sheffield’s city centre and its biggest events

Richard Eyre at The Moor Markets in Sheffield
Richard Eyre at The Moor Markets in Sheffield

There’s an important anniversary in Sheffield next year - but despite being two decades old the celebrant looks as good as new, thinks Richard Eyre.

“The Peace Gardens will be 20 and to me it looks as it did in 1998,” says the council boss with a distinctly wide-ranging brief as head of city centre management, events, markets and CCTV.

“So many councils make mistakes where they get all the EU and lottery money, spend it, and don’t think about how to sustain their spaces, animate them and keep them clean. A lot of those spaces, after five or six years, look terrible.”

The gardens - an early element of the £130 million Heart of the City project, bringing attractive seating, landscaping and a modern water feature - represented a break with the past in Sheffield.

“At the time street cleaning would clean the tarmacked area, but wouldn’t clean the litter on the grass, because it wasn’t their job,” remembers Richard.

“To the public it was madness - it was litter, just get it cleaned.”

Bob Kerslake, then the council’s chief executive, asked for ‘a new way of managing things’, which involved a single team tending to the revamped area. A year later his deputy, John Mothersole, asked for the arrangement to be expanded.

“He said ‘You’ve done a great job with the Peace Gardens. Draw a line round the city centre, do the same.’ On the back of that the Winter Garden opened, Tudor Square, Sheaf Square - all the fantastic public realm we’ve got now.”

And, as the first phase of the New Retail Quarter takes shape, Richard says the city centre is rallying, despite the pull of Meadowhall, Ikea and the other out-of-town giants.

Visitor numbers on Fargate are up by a quarter, and footfall on The Moor has increased by 20 per cent. A two per cent rise in the number of shoppers has been recorded at The Moor Market, and at Crystal Peaks Market the figures are up by five per cent.

“You can see the shift,” says Richard, who was one of the prime movers in establishing Sheffield’s city centre business improvement district, which funds schemes through a levy on companies. “The Moor Market is 85 per cent occupied, that’s the most it’s been since it opened. There’s loads happening.”

Richard will have been with Sheffield Council for 30 years next year, and admits he’s followed a ‘strange path’.

He was born at Myrtle Road, near Bramall Lane - he’s a lifelong Blades supporter - and then moved to Parson Cross. His father was a plasterer and terrazzo layer for the council and his mum was an NHS worker. After leaving Yewlands School, Richard started as an apprentice electrician in the ‘baths and washhouses’ - swimming pools and sports centres, in other words.

Bereavement services also fell under his remit, and one of his first assignments was at City Road Cemetery, where he was asked to clean an unfamiliar machine.

“I didn’t know what it was, so I started stripping it out and someone came and told me it was actually the bone crusher.”

In his early twenties he became an electrical engineer, before he was called up for city centre management.

“Things have just been bolted on - major events, markets, CCTV. Sometimes it’s very odd, but it’s good, I enjoy it.”

There are 92 people in Richard’s team, including horticulturists, water feature maintenance officers and city centre ambassadors. He helped to originate some of the biggest local happenings of recent years, such as the Tour de France’s Grand Depart in 2014, and the Tramlines music festival in 2009.

The bike race, in particular, was a ‘game-changer’, he says, and efforts are being made to one day bring its local successor the Tour de Yorkshire to the city centre.

“It got me into cycling,” adds Richard, who’s funny and refreshingly frank in conversation. One of his most vivid memories of the tour was negotiating, successfully, with a man who threatened to put a tank on the route.

Tramlines, meanwhile, began with a little serendipity. The initial idea was to run an outdoor festival celebrating Sheffield music, but unbeknown to the council, an indoor event was being planned by venue operators too.

“We said ‘Why don’t we just join forces?’ and asked them to curate it. It just took off from there.”

A new major events strategy is set to be launched soon, and Richard says it contains ‘big plans’.

“We have got a fantastic events calendar across the city - everything from a fun run in a park, all the way through to Tramlines, the Doc/Fest and the World Snooker. A lot of stuff we take for granted now, and rightly so. We’ve probably 200,000 people coming to three or four festivals in the city centre in the space of a few months.

“But we’re not just resting on our laurels, we want to start pushing that and looking at what other events are out there.

“Some we might want to buy, some we’d like to develop and curate, and others we might just pinch from other councils. Sheffield really is open for business.

“We use the ‘three P’ rule - pounds, people and profile. Generally our major events should tick two of those, if not three.”

The council is working with UK Sport to look for events it can bid for, and that Sheffield can host.

“Bramall Lane could hold many more festivals and events, and Hillsborough. Don Valley Bowl we’re starting to use a lot more now.”

He accepts there are times local authorities need to call on others’ expertise - book festival Off The Shelf is now being led by the two universities.

“When it was in the council, we struggled, but now straight away it’s growing wings. I think it’s in the top five literary festivals in the UK, it could be in the top three.”

Changes are afoot in the CCTV service, as well.

“We’re developing a monitoring centre. We’ve got this fantastic asset, 24 hours, 365 days a year, and rather than just watching cameras, it could be the call centre for everything, from all the alarms the council does to the private sector, even. We could start to sell that on and make money for the city to reinvest.”

A new markets manager has been brought in with a background in retail - “As a city we’ve made a few mistakes with the markets. There’s so much competition now from supermarkets” - and a proposal is being put forward for Richard’s team to manage the public spaces in the retail quarter.

“I think there’s an opportunity for us. That’s my aspiration, rather than bringing a private operator in. It has to be seamless.”

Richard, 45, lives in Oughtibridge. He has a son and daughter, both still at school, and his wife Joanne is PA to a director at Sheffield Hallam University.

And, as a Sheffield United fan, there’s been one noteworthy highlight this year.

“I got to organise the civic reception so I had to take that moment with the trophy. We did the Wednesday one a few years ago. I was totally professional!”

‘It would be brilliant if the Arctic Monkeys headlined Tramlines in Hillsborough Park’

Richard Eyre is enthusiastically supporting the relocation of Tramlines’ main stage from the Ponderosa in Upperthorpe to Hillsborough Park in 2018 - but says it is right that neighbours should scrutinise the plan.

“A lot of the residents have got questions, and rightly so, it’s a big change.”

Concerns were raised about the potential for increased traffic and noise at a public meeting last month. Nevertheless, Richard says he thought the proposal was ‘generally well-received’.

“I do think it’s the right move for the festival. We’ve got some great plans for Hillsborough Park, but also for the city centre as well.

“Tramlines is a commercial venture now. We put in about £140,000 of public money to set this festival up but we were very clear we couldn’t carry on. It’s got to find a new home, it’s not going to survive where it is. We’re at saturation point anyway in the city centre from a safety point of view.”

Bigger headliners will be needed to sell more tickets, he believes.

“If we can target and push Tramlines to a Noel Gallagher, or Arctic Monkeys, or that kind of level, I think it’ll be fantastic for the city.

“It would be brilliant if it was the Arctic Monkeys. I think they’re all Wednesday fans, as well. It just fits, but we don’t know.

“We’ll try and get Tramlines to put something back into the park, some kind of legacy.”