The regeneration game

ANDY TOPLEY   Andy Topley who is retiring as Director of Regeneration,  pictured in Millennium Square.      31 March 2011
ANDY TOPLEY Andy Topley who is retiring as Director of Regeneration, pictured in Millennium Square. 31 March 2011

POTENTIAL investors in Sheffield may well find themselves being taken on a walk.

Meet them at the railway station, go up Howard Street and through the Millennium Gallery and Winter Garden, into the Peace Gardens and on to Barkers Pool next to the City Hall.

It will encourage them to invest in the city, reckons Andy Topley.

Having played a key role in city centre projects over the past 27 years, he can take pride in the route that highlights many of them.

Sheffield’s regeneration strategy continues, despite the hammer blow of the recession, but it will be without Andy.

He has taken early retirement as director of regeneration with city development company Creative Sheffield.

It was a final stop in a civic career embracing urban design and planning, one that started in 1984 when he joined the council as assistant city planning officer.

Born and bred in Sheffield, he says: “I wanted to work for the city and I was inspired as a schoolboy by the changes in the 60s. I was inspired to be an architect and to build buildings. When the opportunity came to work for Sheffield, I jumped at it.”

The job came at a time when the city was on its uppers. “It was a very sad place. We were going through the ravages of the collapse of steel and engineering. The Don Valley was desolate, with 1,000 acres of derelict land. It was daunting and a bit scary.”

The city centre was reeling from the Meadowhall effect.

The seeds of the Heart of the City programme – widely acknowledged as the catalyst for the city centre revival – were sown in 1994 as Andy worked with colleagues in Sheffield City Development Agency.

It started with a ‘what if’ question. “What if the ‘egg box’ (the town hall extension) was demolished?”

Nervous after the financial fallout from the World Student Games, councillors took a lot of persuading that an expensive package of new buildings and public spaces could offer a turning point.

But with then council leader Mike Bower and new chief executive Bob Kerslake refusing to give up, Andy and colleagues were eventually able to get cracking by drawing on a combination of Millennium Commission, Government and European funds and by tempting private investment.

“It was to the city’s great credit that it supported the idea at a time when confidence was at rock bottom. The best thing Heart of the City did was to give the city back its confidence. The Peace Gardens showed the city centre could be a place of quality.”

The success of Heart of the City is highly visible but it can also be measured financially. Public investment of £44m generated almost £225m from private coffers, estimates Andy.

Moreover, it set the highest quality template of design for other parts of the city centre.

The same approach is being taken with the two major projects that have stalled – the Sevenstone retail quarter and the redevelopment of The Moor. “I am not saying it is going to be easy but there is a very good chance they will happen. They require very hard work when there is less public money around, and we are going to have to be even more innovative.”

Perseverance will also be required at a time when the vehicles of regeneration are being radically changed. In particular, Regional Development Agencies are going – and Yorkshire Forward has been crucial to the transformation of Sheffield city centre.

Creative Sheffield, once an arm’s-length company with a brief to work closely with potential investors, has been brought back under the wing of the council.

Yet, says Andy, the fundamental requirements remain – to provide good leadership, an effective delivery mechanism and to understand the needs of private sector.

“The most important word in regeneration is confidence, whether it be financial confidence or confidence that a public body is going to do what is necessary.”

Some confidence in Sheffield needs rebuilding after the financial storms but the city is in a far better position than when Andy started with the council, when its eggs were largely in the basket of heavy industry.

At the age of 59, Andy has left Creative Sheffield and its predecessor, Sheffield One, which steered the overall city centre masterplan with extensive Government financial help.

The money was crucial but Andy pays tributes to a number of dedicated politicians and officers who stuck, and in some cases are still sticking, with the city’s regeneration game – not only high-profile players such as Mike Bower, Bob Kerslake and former MP Richard Caborn, but also council officers such as Narendra Bajaria, Andy Beard, Colin Farmer, Pat Hickey, Peter Brennan, Richard Watts, Rick Bingham and Simon Ogden.

Much of Andy’s work has been done in the city centre but he also looks back with satisfaction at the saving of scores of industrial buildings in Kelham Island, places such as Globe Works and Aizlewoods Mill.

“My father’s family were miners. When I came to work for the city I was really disappointed that its industrial heritage was being lost. One of the early things I promoted was the designation of Kelham Island as a conservation area and industrial improvement area.”

It’s all behind him now, as he looks forward to spending more time walking and cycling in the Peak District and travelling further afield. Later, there may be “a little bit of consultancy”.

And of course, he’ll be keeping an eye on the city centre.

“It’s been an honour and a privilege to do what I have been allowed to do. I hope I have left the city centre in a much better state than it was in the early 80s and I hope it can get even better.”