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The Cruellest Cut

Tuesday 26th May, 2020
First published in Building Design, we're pleased to be able to share David Rudlin's opinion piece on the cruel reality facing Sheffield's Urban and Environmental Design Team.


The good news is the Sheffield’s Urban and Environmental Design Team has been shortlisted for an RTPI award, the bad news is they probably won’t be around to receive it. 

I have slightly sketchy memories of my first visit to Sheffield. It was some time in the early 1980s and, having arrived off the train from Manchester with the looming presence of the Park Hill flats at our back, we passed through a dark subway from the station to the town centre. There followed a fantastic night at the John Peel Roadshow at the Leadmill, some greasy chips in the Hole in the Road, a bus trip out to a Victorian suburb, a student party, and finally watching the sun come up rotating slowly on a roundabout in a playground at the top of a hill. Sheffield seemed a smaller but much cooler version of my home town of Birmingham, concrete brutalism, student cool and fantastic music. 

Those of you who have been to Sheffield in recent years will appreciate the transformation. The cool and the music are still there but the physical fabric of the city is unrecognisable from what George Orwell claimed ‘could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the old world’ (and that was before the brutalism).

Park Hill is being refurbished by Urban Splash, the dark subway and roundabout outside the station has been replaced with the shimmering presence of Sheaf Square. The old council offices, know as the egg box, have been replaced by the Peace and Winter Gardens. Elsewhere trams glide over the place where the hole in the road once was and the roads that dominated the city are being transformed into wildflower meadows through the Grey to Green initiative. Kelham Island has been regenerated, the Moor with its new Market Hall has been brought back to life and even the long-delayed Retail Quarter is taking shape. 

What is unusual about Sheffield is that much of this work has been done by the council's in-house Urban and Environmental Design Team. Rather than do everything through consultants this team has been responsible for designing much of the city’s new public realm, for producing its design policy and for running its design review panel (of which I was chair). It is this attention to detail and deep understanding of the city that contributes to the quality of what has been produced. The team have deservedly been shortlisted for the RTPI’s 2020 Local Authority Team of the Year Award. 

Unfortunate they may not exist by the time that the RTPI Award is announced at the end of April. As BD reported last November the city is pushing through swinging cuts to its planning service which will see its 100 planning and building control staff reduced to 64. The well-resourced urban design team will be replaced by a single post together with two junior conservation officers. The access officers will disappear and the landscape designers will be transferred to the council’s in house Capital Delivery Service with a requirement to bring in fees. All staff will be made redundant and asked to apply for a post in the new structure something that has caused a number of experienced staff to jump before they are pushed. 

There are, of course, many planning authorities who would be delighted to have a staff contingent of 64 (including building control). According a survey by Planning Resource the average size of a local authority planning department is 38 although the same survey also showed that most authorities had used the 20% increase in planning fees last year to increase rather than decrease their planning staff.

There are some I have spoken to who concede that the number of planners in Sheffield might have been on the generous side. What is however causing concern is the link between a slimmed-down staff and a much more laissez faire approach to planning. Christopher Costelloe, Director of the Victorian Society has expressed deep concern that ‘The proposed evisceration of Sheffield’s planning department... risks losing the historic fabric which makes the city unique.’

Certain politicians in the city take a different view, believing that a restrictive approach to planning means that Sheffield has become a difficult place to do business. Last year Councillor Mazher Iqbal, cabinet member for Business and Investment announced a review of the city’s conservation areas 'to ensure they remain fit for purpose in terms of delivering on their original objectives and not acting as a break on development.’ There seems to be a view that planners have put too many obstacles in the way of developers and spend too much time on pre-application discussions trying to improve schemes when they should be just refusing schemes that are unacceptable and approving those (the majority presumably) that pass muster. 

The Sheffield planning department, that has done so much to transform the city, may appear outdated to some, but the results speak for themselves. There is a reason why the city has received more Academy of Urbanism Awards than any other in the UK, being shortlisted this year alongside Utrecht and Porto for the European City of the Year Award. As Chair of the City’s design panel for five years I saw very little evidence of anti-development bias and the city’s transformation, in any case, the reason why there is so much development interest. Unfortunately it seems that just as we are being urged by, amongst others, the BBBB Commission to invest more in placemaking, the one city that has been doing this for years is rowing in the opposite direction.

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