Mad Management: Vision of past Sheffield business leaders gave us city’s natural capital

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I am writing this at my window overlooking our flowering apple tree that has blue tits, robins and sparrows darting in and out of the white blossoms. The backcloth is the spring green leaves of the trees in the Botanical Garden, which our house abuts. We are very fortunate to have this view just 20 minutes walk from the city centre; but so are many other people in Sheffield, where there are more than 20 city parks, woodlands and gardens – and dozens more private gardens.

This got me thinking, especially about Sheffield defining itself as the Outdoor City, as published in its Outdoor City Strategy (advocating mainly getting out of the city to the great countryside) and two things struck me. The first is that Sheffield actually has a great outdoors IN the city. The second is how much of this is due to the vision and collaboration of our city forefathers and the business owners in the city.

A key part of any city is the development of a culture of learning.

Our unique character is characterised, inter alia, by three things: our connection to nature, especially the flora; learning and education; and music.

Nature

The beautiful Botanical Gardens outside my window came into being because, in 1833, the Master Cutler called a meeting in response to a plea by some citizens for recreation space and more educational amenities. By 1834 the space was bought, and in 1836 they opened. This was lightning fast in terms of procurement, planning and resourcing, and could only have happened because some industrialists and the council shared the same values about what is good for the citizens.

The names of some of the other parks reflect the degree of industrial benefactor investment, eg Graves Park from John George Graves, the watchmaker, and Firth Park from Mark Firth, the pioneer of Firth Brown.

Meanwhile the Council had done its bit too. Weston Park was a gift from the Sheffield Council to the city in 1873, which bought it for the then considerable sum of £15,750 and enhanced it. Our other parks and natural city landmarks like the rivers and streams are again being invested in today, in defiance of the meanness of central government. This, too, is social caring.

(This reminds me of a trip I made to Siberia in 1993 to talk to the industrialists and business students of Novosibirsk, the railway HQ of Russia. The city was broke. They had a new young mayor who held a reception for us. He was asked how big the city deficit was – $500 million. What would be the first thing he would do if you had the money? Build a park full of lawns, flowers and trees for the children! He was right. In a grey cold city, with dismal Communist utilitarian buildings, and featureless, empty shops what people really needed was something for the soul. Intuitively the mayor knew it).

We have been very fortunate and we need to honour that vision by encouraging young people to get out to the parks, and to leave their earphones and smartphones at home so they can hear the streams and birdsong, as well as admire the bluebells.

Education

A key part of any city is the development of a culture of learning. Again, our business community has been most generous. The contributions of businessmen Mappin, Allen and Graves were fundamental to the launching of Sheffield University, while, more recently, Sir Norman Adsetts was a major donor to the Sheffield Hallam university library, now known as the Adsetts Centre.

Both the universities have reciprocated in different ways to a symbiotic relationship with industry. Nevertheless, the visionary contribution Sheffield University, in particular, has made to industry through its Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, is remarkable.

However, let us not forget educational pioneer, Arnold Freeman, who set up the Sheffield Workers Educational Settlement in 1918. He worked tirelessly to improve the life experience of Sheffield working people, through education and the arts – “everything that enriches human beings, with that which described in three words is Beauty, Truth and Goodness…”

Music

The third tradition is less obvious, but is fundamental to the character of Sheffield, especially in the north of the city, and that is choir singing. Unlike Manchester or Birmingham, Sheffield does not have a city orchestra, or even national brass band; but Sheffield is the centre of more than 1,000 South Yorkshire choristers. There are nearly 40 choirs in Sheffield alone, ranging from the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus with nearly 200 members to barbershop quartets.

However, what makes the city really special in this regard is the pub carol singing that begins in mid November, where, informally, in pubs in the north of Sheffield, singers assemble to sing traditional and Sheffield carols. Everyone joins in. The singing and atmosphere is great, with visitors coming from as far away Cornwall and London just to join in.

What has this to do with business? They complement each other. Many of the choirs and bands emerged from and were supported by the local industry, as some of their names indicate, eg Black Dyke Band (John Foster & Co, Black Dyke Mills), Grimethorpe (colliery). Music contributes greatly to the community spirit and stability, and often represents community values. Business should be prepared to make significant contributions to keep alive what Arnold Freeman called, after the Greeks, truth, beauty and goodness – the stuff of a good society – which makes for good business.