Northern Lights: “It’s easy to be a keyboard warrior – but tough to fix our high streets”

Fargate, Sheffield.
Fargate, Sheffield.

On Boxing Day 2018, rather aptly the Government announced a new beauty contest that struggling Local Authorities could apply for selection to. Apt because the fund was titled the High Street Fund and presumably it was no co-incidence the fund was launched on the once busiest shopping day of the year.

In contrast to previous pageants the criteria by which contestants would be judged on was ugliness, not fit for purpose or in Government terminology, enabling the high street to be ‘fit for the future.’  So where do we start in Sheffield, which for the purposes of this fund may need to be described as a ‘bit past it’ or in need of re-gilding. The Guardian has already decided we are a bit rubbish by describing Sheffield as a place where ‘everyone’s leaving – Sheffield’s high streets gutted by vacancies’.

Sheffield Council did a fantastic six tweet rebuttal emphasising the development of the Moor, the new businesses opening, the variety of independent shops, the repurposing of Castle House and the former gentleman’s convenience now transformed into the award winning
Public bar. But in the cacophony of accusations, and rebuttals, the fact remains that one only has to go onto the former bustling streets of Fargate, High Street, Chapel Walk to see empty shops, premises with signs stating they would soon to be relocating  on the Moor and scaffolding obscuring shop fronts.

Not withstanding, there are very few empty units. It is the shops that have gone that stay in the memory not the new coffee bar that replaces them. But whose responsibility is the ‘decline’ of our ‘once prosperous’ High Street and Fargate shopping area as described by the Guardian? The standard cry is the council; not considering for one moment the area we are discussing is owned by over 19 different pension trusts and property investors and the Church Burgess Trust.

Those property owners and organisations such as the Sheffield Property Association are instrumental in forging partnerships to enable transformative vision. Others bemoan it is ‘the internet that’s done it’ – ‘nobody wants to buy local when they can get it cheaper online’. If you ask a hundred people you will get 100 different answers - business rates, parking costs, beggars and anti-social behaviour, too expensive, too cheap, too cold, too mainstream, too many charity shops, too many coffee shops, Meadowhall, too many nail bars, not enough decent shops, the list is endless. But instead of thinking of quick fix answers and knee jerk responses such as appointing shopping Czars who’ve never lived in our city, we have to understand the answer is not free parking or social cleansing or restricting certain types of planning or blaming a retail park that opened in 1990, but an understanding of what are our high streets for and how they can be utilised in future. The decisions we make today will leave their mark literally on the landscape of the city centre whether it be change of use from retail to residential, to preserving iconic buildings to building new schemes. The challenge is to create a place that’s creative and adaptable enough to thrive in an ever changing landscape of changing leisure and retail activities, seeing the many different desires and hopes of Sheffield residents as an expression of their emotional connection with the city centre that needs to be kept alive in new ways. 
The city centre, like the new developments around Heart of the City Two. needs to be a hub of experiential activities alongside residential needs, offices, retail activities and a realisation of transport requirements and infrastructure for all our citizens be it trams, buses, cars, bikes or shanks pony. We need voices to be listened to and many conversations to occur.

So back to the High Street Fund .What happens next?
Sheffield Council with the support of the University of Sheffield is co-ordinating a workshop of specialist planners, property developers, residents of the city centre and other interested bodies to plan together a vision for the high streets and byways of the city centre. The University cares about the city centre, our students and staff work and live in the city, they are from Sheffield or have found a home here and we want to share our expertise as part of our civic mission. An expression of interest to the High Street Fund will be sent outlining the needs, challenges and a creative vision for the future of areas facing reduced footfall.

There will be many Local Authorities alongside Sheffield hoping that their project is eligible to bid with a cut-off point of £25 million with 50 per cent match required. It is important to understand the details behind these headline[s] as the fund is stating the responsibility the answers and the investments required for transformative change need to be shared. Partners in the city need to step up and invest in their buildings, update their properties to reflect the needs of the visitor and user and to work together.

It is easy to be a keyboard warrior and shop and complain online, it is harder to come up with a vision that will entice, encourage and halt the declining footfall on our highways and byways and rooted in the reality of what can and cannot be done.

Sheffield City Centre has always been a challenge, its linear development its lack of a centralised hub, and the ghosts of short lived past developments such as the Hole in the Road are still around us.

But it has history and beauty if one can look beyond the distressed buildings, the repair notices and the scaffolding, perhaps next time the Guardian visits Sheffield we can help them write a different story.