Are Sheffielders really an unhappy lot, or do we just like to grumble?

I can imagine that readers might think I'm going to write about the general election. This, however, is not a party political column and I don't intend to turn it into one. Nevertheless, so much of our lives are political in one way or another – they just don’t necessarily relate to either political parties or our democratic processes.

Wednesday, 6th November 2019, 9:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 6th November 2019, 1:17 pm
Endcliffe Park is one of over 800 parks and green spaces in Sheffield. Picture Scott Merrylees

I remember a political broadcast in which the Labour Party demonstrated that from the moment that you got up to whatever your tipple was before you went to bed, you were, in one way or another, paying out to a company that either donated directly to the British Conservative Party, or was involved in a very major way in lobbying the British government.

However, I'm talking about something much more subtle: that is the importance of what is happening within our city, how others see us and yes, some of those very boring statistical truths, which, as Al Gore, the former Vice President of the United States used to term as ‘inconvenient truths’.

Readers may be aware Al Gore came to Sheffield and presented at the Octagon Theatre both his film and his own take on the dangers that face us from climate change long before Extinction Rebellion took up the cause on our streets.

I was reminded of this tangentially when Natalie Bennett, the former co-chair of the Green Party, who moved to Sheffield a few years ago, was inducted as a Baroness in the House of Lords. What took my attention was Natalie's decision to adopt a title that sought to straddle both Sheffield and London. I sat as the ceremony was undertaken, and in wishing her well, was fascinated when she adopted the title of ‘Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle…’ I was waiting for the ‘in the city of Sheffield’ but it wasn't. It was the ‘London Borough of Camden’. Is there a Manor Castle in Camden? In all my enquiries, including to those who live in Camden, indicate there is not!

About the same time, Friends of the Earth brought out an index of cities and towns across the country in terms of their relative position on climate change and "greening". I was so concerned at the description of where Sheffield fell that I made a few enquiries. In terms of any kind of statistical analysis and accuracy, I'm afraid the Friends got it very badly wrong.

That said, the challenge for us is enormous. The opportunity is phenomenal. In simple terms, as one of the greenest cities in Europe, with a proud history of challenging the scourge of polluted air going back to the 1950s; with the District Energy Network, and of course with one third of the city in the Peak National Park, we’re well placed for future innovation in this area. One step would be to seek designation for Sheffield as an Urban National Park as London, bizarrely, has already done. I hope we will be able to do this sooner rather than later.

At a recent Sheffield City Partnership Board which I chaired there was a set of statistics that also worried me greatly. This was about comparative areas of the country in terms of both economic and social wellbeing. The good news was that over the last six years in economic and prosperity terms, Sheffield had performed better than any of the equivalent urban areas. The bad news was our perception of ‘wellbeing and happiness’. With the quality of our environment, the remarkable sense of community, plus our dry sense of humour, I'd have expected the index to have us way up at the highest levels.

So I set about thinking what could this be. One explanation, obvious from international studies, is the gross inequality between different parts of the city. Where there is a divide, the greater the divide, the more it reinforces the sense of unfairness, inequality, and discontent. Added to that, the grit of Sheffield people is in part an explanation of why we might not be hilariously happy. We’re dissatisfied for good reason. We want things to be better. We don't ‘put up with" things. In other words, we grumble. I rather foolishly said at that meeting ‘things might be improving, but on the whole we appear to be a set of miserable b…..s!’

Actually, because we laugh at ourselves, we’re not all that bad. I suspect those leading this study didn't understand the Sheffield psyche, or what to ask! If you approach someone on the living wage, whose accommodation has condensation, has three kids who run them ragged, and some smart Charlie from down south asks, ‘Are you happy?, you might get the answer you deserve.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

If you'd asked: ‘Have you got good friends, enjoy a laugh, feel a sense of belonging and care about those around you?’ you might have got a different answer. But I confess, the bare statistics made me think.