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Debate on development in Sheffield unites council and businesses: ‘The city is on fire and there’s much more investment’

Alexis Krachai, Lucy Brown, John Mothersole, Jim Bell, Jamie Wilson and Tim Bottrill with, centre, Nancy Fielder. Picture: Chris Etchells
Alexis Krachai, Lucy Brown, John Mothersole, Jim Bell, Jamie Wilson and Tim Bottrill with, centre, Nancy Fielder. Picture: Chris Etchells

Sheffield is being strengthened in a way that is ‘more than just positive’ through a partnership between the council and property firms, a round table event hosted by The Star heard – as big developments and impressive deals point to a city ‘on fire’ with greater investment.

Chaired by the newspaper’s editor Nancy Fielder, the in-depth discussion brought together members of the Sheffield Property Association – an organisation formed in 2016 to be a ‘collective voice’ that was the first of its kind outside London – with the council’s chief executive John Mothersole and its cabinet member for business Mazher Iqbal.

Jamie Wilson, Alexis Krachai and Lucy Brown. Picture: Chris Etchells

Jamie Wilson, Alexis Krachai and Lucy Brown. Picture: Chris Etchells

SPA representatives involved were Alexis Krachai, managing director of communications company Counter Context and his colleague, account manager Lucy Brown; Tim Bottrill, founder of the Colloco agency; Jamie Wilson, director at HLM Architects and Jim Bell, a director at engineers Arup.

The relationship between the association and the council’s new city growth department, set up earlier this year following a months-long reorganisation, is probably unique for ‘a whole set of reasons’, Alexis said.

“It certainly creates a unique opportunity for Sheffield,” agreed Jim. “There’s a new momentum for us.”

John said: “I think we’re much stronger with it and it’s much more than just positive. The fact we were there at the start of this – but not members of it, deliberately, to enable the voice to be unadulterated – means we’ve grown up together. We like its insight, and knowledge, and its ‘critical friend’ relationship with us. We know each other well enough that we can have a row but not divorce.”

Coun Mazher Iqbal. Picture: Chris Etchells

Coun Mazher Iqbal. Picture: Chris Etchells

When asked why the council needed such partnerships, he explained: “A council is a very powerful body. We have a lot of authority vested in us. In many areas we’re well-informed about what we do, but we’re not engineers, architects or property developers. We’re experts in running the council and trying to shape the city. If you put the two together, it is better.”

Mazher said he believed Sheffield was ‘a place where everybody gets on’. “We’re on the same page. I don’t want businesses having to make five or six calls to get to the right person. They can come to me.”

Online fashion retailer PrettyLittleThing, owned by Boohoo, is taking one of the biggest warehouses in the country, on Shepcote Lane, Tinsley, with the promise of 1,200 jobs. John said it was a case study in how Sheffield should be talking to investors earlier.

“In the world of the beauty parade, where we think we have to compete, we think the race starts when they approach Sheffield, when actually the race started a year before,” said the chief executive. “We can be talking about Sheffield before they’ve ever thought about investing anywhere. Boohoo is a massive employer that’s taken a massive building – Mazher and I developed a relationship with the executive chairman. Without that relationship, that may have fallen. Replicating that in other sectors makes landing investment in cities like Sheffield more likely. And sometimes it gives you better investment, because it’s well thought-through – it doesn’t come here because they think it’s cheap, but because it’s good.”

The panel was asked to explain why Sheffield had a presence at occasions such as MIPIM – a prominent real estate conference in Cannes – or bidded on landing names like Channel 4.

“If you’re not visible you will fall behind,” said Jamie. “In the last few years Sheffield has made fantastic strides.”

John added: “If we want to keep Sheffield a best kept secret, money's not going to come here. We’ve got to keep the qualities of Sheffield that make it the place people love, not make it identikit, loud and brash.”

Alexis used the predicament of someone seeking employment as a useful analogy. “You don’t get a job by sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring. There is a large amount of money, globally, that wants to invest to generate returns for pension funds we all benefit from. If people don’t hear about Sheffield that money will go elsewhere. Events like MIPIM are really integral. You have to get out there.”

But he emphasised: “I think it’s a tough case to make for a local authority to spend a lot of money going to MIPIM. I think there’s an argument there. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do it. It’s on record, in the public domain – the City Region spends £100,000-£150,000 going to MIPIM. The cost of the promotion of the city can be borne by our sector.”

John pointed out that Sheffield Council only ‘attends’ the conference. “The paid for, branded presence is Sheffield City Region.”

He added resolutely: “If MIPIM was in Stoke-on-Trent we’d still go.”

The council boss recalled visiting another event – MIPIM UK – in London, where he ended up addressing delegates three times in a single day, all because Sheffield had a property association. “There was a ripple of jealousy in that room – ‘Why have they asked Sheffield to speak first?’”

Mazher reeled off a list of successful schemes including the 437-bed Brass Founders student flats on Scotland Street and the Chinese-backed £65m New Era development of shops, apartments and offices off Bramall Lane. In addition, banking giant HSBC is moving its Sheffield staff to offices in phase one of the Heart of the City II project in Charter Square.

“I think the city is on fire and there’s much more investment,” he said.

Looking ahead, Jim brought up Brexit and its potential impact. “I imagine in six months’ time there might be a bit of a lull. The question will be how we come shooting back out of the other side of it.”

John recommended: “Never believe you’re in a boom even if you are. That’s when you get lazy, take your eye off the ball and think it’ll never stop. Always think how to keep tomorrow going. Student accommodation is a classic. We could just sit back and say ‘It just keeps rolling in’. We’re not, we’re looking at each scheme quite carefully to say ‘How do we future-proof this if the market changes?’”

Tim said Sheffield has a ‘looming massive undersupply of offices in the city centre’. “There were conversations yesterday with an occupier looking for 25,000 sq ft, where you have one choice – No 1 Charter Square. It will let. But what do you do after that? Office-wise, we’re at £25 per square foot. Public sector assistance shouldn’t be needed if we keep going. The public sector should assist development and not support it in perpetuity.”

The council is driving Heart of the City II, the £500m mixed-use project to overhaul the middle of Sheffield. It is the successor to Sevenstone, the ‘new retail quarter’ that stalled when the recession hit and was then dropped when the council parted ways with developer Hammerson.

“We’re not developing a shopping centre,” said John. “I’d have been a very happy man if the retail quarter had been built on time. But it wasn’t. I’m really glad it didn’t get built during the difficult times, because we’d be looking at a scheme now thinking ‘How on earth are we going to persuade corporate retailers to come in here?’ We find ourselves in a really strong position to develop the first of the new.”

Alexis took a similar view. “I think there’s a lot of evidence that 90 per cent of jobs that people will have in 20 years’ time haven’t been invented. Our city centre needs to be flexible to provide space for that level of ingenuity and innovation.”

Call for businesses to help run city

Sheffield needs leadership from philanthropic businesspeople of a kind that harks back to the days of the revered J.G. Graves, the debate was told, if cuts are to be overcome.

Graves was a mail order entrepreneur who donated towards the opening of art galleries and gifted land, including Ecclesall Woods and Concord Park, before his death in 1945.

Alexis Krachai said the Sheffield Property Association had talked about the idea ‘from day one’.

“I fundamentally believe the tectonic plates that shape how our economy functions and how cities grow are changing in ways we haven't seen for decades, maybe centuries. Since 2008 the amount of debt this country has had to take on to get through the crash means that austerity policies are largely irrelevant. We have to build a more sustainable economy.”

The council, he said, will carry on being ‘hugely influential’ because of its extensive legal powers. “But the government we’ve got used to in this country over the past 50 years needs to change. If that’s right, at a city level we’re going to need a quality and type of private sector leadership we haven’t seen since the days of Graves. It doesn’t mean those around this table are going to build libraries and art galleries. But we’re going to need the private sector to work in a genuine, thoughtful, considered way with the public sector.”

Alexis described how firms would need to take on responsibilities and put ‘individual commercial priorities to one side, contributing to a whole’.

“Fundamentally it’s about protecting and then enhancing frontline services, because those services are going to be more reliant on local taxes – council tax receipts, business rates and fees. Unless we grow our city we won’t be able to generate the tax receipts to look after our most vulnerable.”

He admitted that these ambitions were largely absent from the SPA website, but continued: “The property association, if it's going to have an impact, will need to be 50 to 60 years old, in the same way the Cutlers’ Company has been here for centuries. I do firmly believe that. It’s not about our Town Hall being weak in any way or lacking. But it’s just recognising we’re going to have to get used to the Town Hall doing less but us doing more.”