‘We can be seen as a city that continues to reinvent itself’
Richard Wright, executive director, Sheffield Chamber of Commerce
It is worth noting that at this point the city council has only granted the potential Chinese developers a 12-month exclusive window to examine the feasibility of the option of converting the existing central library into a five-star hotel and relocating the Graves Art Gallery to the ground floor.
They freely admit there is much more work to do, including developing a scheme for the new library, which they have promised to do.
Naturally many members of the public have concerns about this but I would defend the decision to engage in a wider public debate of the alternatives.
It is the mark of an open democracy and presenting a fait accompli could mean that the decisions had been made in closed discussions.
The danger is that everybody sees this as a one issue debate. It isn’t. This is just one project in the continued development of our city.
The question we should all ask is: “Will the city support a new five-star hotel in five or 10 years’ time?”
Because if the answer is ‘yes’ it means the city is doing well and will be a great place to live. We should get on with it and, providing the city does build an alternative ‘fit for purpose’ library, the economic case seems pretty overwhelming.
The current building needs a massive amount of money spending on it just to refurbish its structure, the library needs another massive amount of money spending on it to bring it up to world class, and we have some private Chinese investors potentially interested in doing the project.
The risks are that the city doesn’t develop as we want, or that even if the city does develop a five-star hotel on that site it is not viable, or that there isn’t enough funding for a standard of library we all want.
The benefits are that we build something that adds to the offer of Sheffield and is symbiotic with the other developments in progress.
The benefit from being seen as a city that continues to re-invent itself, and invest in itself, is immeasurable.
It draws other investors in and should help improve the lives of everybody in the city and region. It must be evaluated properly and the council and its investors must be given time to do it.
‘A creative approach to civic assets is needed’
Brian Holmshaw, Joined Up Heritage Sheffield
The central library is a 1929 art deco classic. The long-term municipal vision that the city council had then has taken us a long way.
Eight decades on it is threatened by the triple whammy of changed library habits, a large, leaky building with poor public access and a local authority which sees outside forces as the only way to solve issues of renewal and regeneration.
Despite its grade II listing, the building is not eligible for regular Historic England funds and risks being another lost public space. External investment in Sheffield is to be welcomed, but public assets once out of local control are not easily won back.
On a positive note we have a great opportunity to remodel central library services to create a physical and virtual public learning space. The current services include an art gallery, theatre, several specialist libraries and miles of book storage.
What do people need and want - and how is the council going to find this out?
Overall we need a more creative approach to our civic assets. There are other investment models - trusts and community interest companies can access funding the council cannot.
And public engagement is essential if decisions about the future of our community assets are to stand the test of time. Recently the council has been found out in its attempts to sideline residents - street trees, lighting, local libraries and flood barriers are all massively contentious.
Consultation events and a scrutiny committee meeting are steps in the right direction, but Sheffield citizens need open, transparent engagement over all publicly owned assets, not pre-decided wishy-washy consultation or after-the-fact damage limitation.
Without this, trust will continue to leach away.
‘Part of our cultural heart will disappear’
Rebecca Gransbury, petitioner
I started a petition to keep Sheffield Central Library in the current building because I love using the library. I think it is a beautiful and inspiring building and I love its location next to the Winter Garden and Millennium Gallery.
The petition now has over 10,400 signatures, so I know I’m far from the only person to feel this way.
I have attended the public meetings, where Councillor Jack Scott has described the benefits to Sheffield, and to the library service, of the Chinese investment deal.
But there are a lot of unanswered questions.
The council says we should think about the totality of the deal offered, but it is hard to do so when we do not have a complete picture.
We have a lot of specific information about how much the current library will cost to renovate but very vague statements about what a new library would cost or where it would be.
My fear is that Sheffield will lose something of its cultural heart if the library is moved.
When I presented my petition to the council, I talked about the message it sends to move a public lending library away from art and culture and to put a luxury hotel in its place.
I said that the library is inspiring because it tells the story that our public resources can live in beautiful places. It is a living, public space embedded in Sheffield’s history and culture.
Sheffield Central Library has over 500,000 visits a year, not including separate visits to the Graves Gallery.
It has long deserved to be renovated and improved, as has the Graves Art Gallery.
I think the council has neglected its duty to these public areas, and to improving disabled access, for too long and now seem desperate to pass a burden that should be a point of pride on to someone else.
Is Sheffield Council rushing to embrace this investment opportunity before they have all the information required, and without fully considering the information they do have?
If that is the case, it is a huge risk for our library service.
‘Give theatre users a firm guarantee too’
Phil Gascoyne, chairman, Sheffield and District Amateur Theatre Association
In the debate regarding the future of the Central Library, we have had guarantees regarding the future of the Art Gallery and the location of any future library building. But there has been no guarantee about the fate of the Library Theatre.
This 260-seat Art Deco theatre is unique among the theatres of Sheffield.
It is the only theatre owned by the council, and, therefore, by the people of Sheffield. It belongs to the residents of Sheffield.
It is Sheffield groups who perform there and Sheffield people who come to see them. It has been the home of amateur theatre groups for over 70 years and is used by a variety of youth theatres, dance schools, bands and a range of professional companies.
It is home to one of the country’s oldest drama festivals and is one of the venues for Doc/Fest.
It provides an opportunity for the residents of Sheffield to go to the theatre at a reasonable cost.
The average ticket price is around £8-£9, which, to say the least, compares very favourably with Crucible and Lyceum prices.
Audience members can, and do, attend performances at the library several times a year.
Its central location means it can easily be reached by those who rely on public transport.
This theatre is visited by thousands of Sheffield residents every year and is regarded by those who use it as ‘our theatre’.
And if it goes? Quite simply, the groups that use it will fold, amateur theatre in the centre of Sheffield will stop and the professional companies will look for other cities and towns. It will be a body blow to the cultural identity of the city.
And it mustn’t be allowed to happen. If a new Central Library is built, it is vital that a new theatre is part of the plan.
It’s time for the council to give Library Theatre users the same guarantee they have given to users of the library and gallery.
Key issues at stake in hotel proposal
The 10 vital questions that need answering
Last month the Sheffield Telegraph published a list of questions on the front page relating to the plan to create a five-star hotel at the Central Library and Graves Gallery building.
We made a pledge to print the questions on a monthly basis, until answers are provided before a binding deal with Chinese development partner Sichuan Guodong is signed.
Here is the list in full again:
* Where will the new Central Library be?
* When will the new library open?
* Will all existing library sections/services be kept?
* What will happen to the Library Theatre?
* What level of public access will there be at Graves?
* What protection will there be for the Graves collection?
* Will the building’s heritage and character be preserved?
* Will the hotel interior reflect the building’s proud past and city’s history?
* Are jobs at risk?
* What happens if the hotel goes bust?
A third public meeting to discuss Sheffield Council’s proposals is set to take place tonight (Thursday), at the Town Hall from 7pm to 9pm.
The event is a repeat of the first and second meetings on December 6 and 16.