Northern Lights: Community spirit still strong in our pioneering ‘streets in the sky’ flats

Sheffield Stock pic taken from roof of Wilkos Park Hill Flats Yorkshire Flag Tram Bridge
Sheffield Stock pic taken from roof of Wilkos Park Hill Flats Yorkshire Flag Tram Bridge

Well the Park Hill Flats or “streets in the sky” as they are affectionately called, are in the news and for all the right reasons. Having had a long family association with them it’s been interesting reading what the national press have been saying. Catherine, my daughter, taught at Park Hill school for a good number of years in the 90s and tells stories of how many of the young people have made it in life, even with sometimes a tough upbringing. Former Sheffield United player Kyle Naughton, now a successful Premier League footballer, is one such example. I served as an MP for more than 25 years for the area and, as a minister, was involved, for good or bad, in having the flats listed in the late 90s. Also, a few years later, convincing Tom Bloxham, MBE, from Urban Splash that the flats’ renovation would be one of the North’s great regeneration projects.

More importantly, since it opened in 1981, I have been Chairman of the Trades and Labour Club at the heart of the Park.

This slum housing was replaced by what became award winning, internationally recognised housing schemes like the Gleadless Valley development and the Park Hill flats

What has been most striking in recent commentary on the flats, is the vision of the city leaders in that post Second World War period, which saw some of the most imaginative and progressive house building and development in the country.

Getting rid of the back to back slums and the war damaged housing in the city (my Nan lived in a one up and one down house with the tin bath out in front of the Yorkshire range on a Friday and the outside toilet with toilet paper of neatly cut newspaper on a string, I only found out later why my white pants were always black after I had been to nan’s!).

This slum housing was replaced by what became award-winning, internationally recognised housing schemes like the Gleadless Valley development and the Park Hill flats “Streets in the Sky”. Park Hill, a remarkable single structure containing 994 flats, four pubs and a shopping parade, stretched along the hilltop above the rail station, four storeys at one end and 13 at the other making for a level roof line.

Have we got that civic leadership today, delivering schemes and projects that will be remembered in 50 years time and inspire the likes of Richard Hawley to write and sing about? Answers on a post card.

This recognition was also captured in the Guardian’s obituary to architect/designer Ivor Smith, one of the team led by the City’s dynamic chief architect Lewis Womersley. They designed and developed many of the innovating features that enabled them to stand out, as the perceptive comment in the Guardian stated: “as vandals tore through housing estates in the 1970s, Park Hill stood out as a social experiment that worked.” Possibly one other feature that contributed to Park Hill’s success was and still is the strong community spirit. Whilst the occupants of the flats had left the slums of Attercliffe behind, they brought with them a community spirit. The flats in the early years had one of the most active community centres in the city which kept alive community spirit that was born out of back to back housing, chatting in the yards and playing football on the streets.

One other interesting event which has been trailed in the media and has the flats at its centre, is the new musical “Standing at the Sky’s Edge “.that Richard Hawley is producing next year. Who knows, it could be another “Stirrings in Sheffield on a Saturday night”.

A message to Richard: if you want to engage with the history and hear some true stories about life at the flats I offer an invitation to join me for an evening at the Trades and Labour Club. Many of its members lived on the flats and tell some very interesting, humorous stories.

The Trades and Labour Club still has that community spirit that the early tenants from Attercliffe brought to the flats. The senior citizen club on a Wednesday afternoon, the kids trip to the sea side, the coveted Christmas dinner.

The men’s and women darts team, along with the pool teams, the horse racing, pigeon racing and chess clubs and not forgetting, the famous “Trades Got Talent” and dozens of charity events.

That community spirit and determination really has been in evidence in these last few months when members fought back against a brewery and saved the club for their community.

Community pubs and clubs are an important part of our social fabric and recent figures showing the closure of 19 pubs per week are of concern. It’s no wonder the Daily Mirror with Camra have started a new campaign to save pubs and clubs which I fully support and hope they will question the motives of some of the breweries in these closures.