Northern Lights: Why we are not so much punching above our weight as at new weight!

I'm no great fan of management speak. You know the sort of thing - 'blue sky thinking', 'outside the box', 'new narrative'.

Thursday, 23rd March 2017, 8:00 am
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 9:48 am

High on my list of dislikes is the “I hear what you say” response. It basically means that I disagree with you. I will ignore your view. I’m not listening to you.

Which takes me to my monthly experience at Sheffield’s Full Council meeting. The first hour of the meeting is for public questions.

The ten Cabinet members of the council take questions from the public. For most questions the leading councillors will at best have had a few minutes notice of the question.

Sometimes the question they are eventually asked has changed. It’s high pressure thinking on your feet. For the councillor to just hear what is said would not be good enough. This is a live and commendable exercise in hearing and listening.

The questions are rarely easy. Some are very challenging. They can range from a very local worry to a global human rights issue. There can be anger and sadness.

As a monthly spectator of this, I always feel that I am glad it’s them and not me in the hot seat at that time.

But I wonder how often are we glad that it is not us? How glad are we that we have our politicians? So, let me say something you do not hear much – we should be grateful we have local politicians.

I know some may just dismiss that as a smart career move by me, which probably means that with them I will be heard but not listened to. For the others, please let me explain.

Choices by the council and for the city are always having to be made. In the face of the recent recession, one of the choices the council had was how to approach the years ahead. The leading councillors decided that, despite the tough times that were coming, they would remain ambitious for Sheffield.

It wasn’t the most obvious decision to make. Logic, in many respects, would point to less money surely meaning less ambition.

The years since then have been tougher than we had been told to expect, but Sheffield is benefitting from that ambition. You only need to recall Richard Caborn’s column in this newspaper a few weeks ago for evidence of that.

Of course, with hindsight, it’s easy to spot the good decisions. But when you are making those decisions, success is not guaranteed, and sometimes, given the ferocious reaction to public failure, you could forgive the safe option of not taking a decision. We do, though, want decisions to be taken.

We don’t always agree with those decisions. But with local politicians we know who they are and we know how to hold them to account. Far better that than the anonymous “man or woman from the ministry”. And of course, local politicians know the city. They live with us.

For me, we all have a part to play in this. As a society we have seen develop a culture that is very harsh on failure, even when the endeavour was with the best of intentions. And one thing that I have learnt in my career is that if the response to failure is blame, then people do not get it right next time. They just stop trying.

So I’d like to use this column to praise the decision makers. Of course we want those decisions to be wise, insightful, and ones with which we agree. We want those decisions to take account of our views, something that councils, like ours, up and down the land, put a huge effort into.

But even if you sometimes have doubts then let’s always try and see those decisions as well-meaning and brave.

Which takes me into the choppy waters of Brexit, a period preceded in Sheffield with bold decisions to seek Chinese investment, to fight for a city centre HS2 station, to progress the retail quarter and to boost our city manufacturing.

A few years ago, as we endured the “credit crunch” which morphed into a recession, someone once said that the economy would recover when people got fed-up with feeling fed-up.

Since the Brexit vote I have deliberately met with many businesses. All now see Brexit as a fact of life that has to be faced. They now see the years ahead as a period of sustained uncertainty. Their experience tells them that in such times you should focus on the core strengths of your business and behave with confidence in those strengths.

Cities, in my view are no different. In Sheffield, we find ourselves with key strengths – skills, a growing population, strong manufacturing, improving schools, to name but a few.

If we approach the next few years with intelligent confidence then we will get through it. That means, above all, behaving with confidence as a city and allowing and supporting those elected to lead to carry on making bold decisions.

Just as the recession may have ended when people got fed-up with feeling fed-up, a confident future for our city will be based on the confidence we all show now.

As a context for that confidence, and in conclusion, I was at a great celebratory event at the Showroom Cinema recently.

The Sheffield based film-making talent in the room was immense, and the main speaker celebrated how Sheffield punched well above its weight, to use a boxing analogy.

I told my son about this later. He said that he always hears that Sheffield punches above its weight. Maybe, he said, we were as a city already at the new weight. But we just hadn’t realised it. Now that’s a confident note on which to end.