Constituency profile: Nick Clegg’s fight to hold Sheffield Hallam

Abbeydale Park Rise at Dore. Picture: David Anderson
Abbeydale Park Rise at Dore. Picture: David Anderson
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Only five miles separates the village of Dore from the centre of Sheffield. It takes less than half an hour on the 81 bus, but few of its 5,500 inhabitants use it.

This is commuter country. The properties here, on the edge of the Peak District yet just a single hop to Nottingham or Manchester from the little station on Abbeydale Road, are among the most desirable in Yorkshire, and the address has long carried a singular cachet.

Taking in the dormitory villages slightly further north, the area is wealthier than Windsor and Twickenham. That this Hallam constituency is part of Sheffield is, for some, an anomaly.

Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister and still the local MP, says the area has historically got a raw deal from the city’s Labour-held council, not least in education funding.

“The council has short changed schools in south west Sheffield in favour of those elsewhere in the city,” he says.

Hallam is the only seat in South Yorkshire that is not a Labour fortress. The Conservatives held it for a century, save for two years during the First World War, until the fall of John Major’s government in 1997, when it turned orange. Mr Clegg, who succeeded Lord Allan in 2005, notes that it is almost exclusively rural and residential, with no commercial centre and few office properties.

After five tumultuous years at the epicentre of British politics, he is getting reacquainted with it at grass roots level.

“It feels very different this time around,” he says. “But every campaign is different,

“On my first one I was hanging on to the coattails of Richard Allan. Last time there was acrimony and controversy because I had been in government dealing with policies that weren’t always popular.”

That unpopularity saw his majority cut in 2015 from more than 15,000 to just 2,353, making Hallam a marginal seat this time.

Bidding for the second time to take it from him is Conservative Ian Walker, a Brexiteer who runs an engineering business in Sheffield and who believes the next parliament will be all about getting the right deal from Europe.

Many have told him they voted tactically last time, he says. “A lot of people trusted the Lib Dems on tuition fees and other issues. And the first thing they did was form a coalition with the Tories. It’s the last time people will believe them.”

The area, he believes, will gravitate naturally back to the Conservatives. “It’s a constituency we threw away,” he concedes.

The fact that Labour beat the party into third place in 2015 surprised many, but the national Labour machine shows no sign of having prioritised it this time.

Jared O’Mara, the 35 year-old charity worker and music event organiser they selected at short notice, has yet to meet Jeremy Corbyn. “It’s a very different campaign,” he says. “Last time there was a huge team of volunteers and an 18-month start, and there was a lot of support from the central party.” He was among those volunteers, but admits that this time, “other constituencies have priority”.

Ian Walker says he is not surprised by the Labour leader’s absence. “It’s not a Corbyn sort of constituency,” he says.

An un-Corbynesque patchwork of Peak District villages makes up the northern half of the constituency, but Nick Clegg worries that they are inaccessible to many.

That 81 bus to Dore is all very well but, he says, “the availability and affordibility of bus routes which operate on a hub and spoke principle in a very hilly city means that it’s difficult to travel from one part of the constituency to another, without going in and out of the centre of Sheffield.”

He is at pains to demonstrate his local knowledge and to emphasise his Yorkshire credentials. “Seb Coe used to run along the Rivelin Valley, where I now live,” he says. But his home turf is the deeply Conservative village of Chalfont St Giles in the Chilterns.

His opponents both grew up in Sheffield, and Mr Walker points to what he calls the disconnect between the Westminster bubble and the people.

“It’s about taking a pride in your own city,” he says.

• IN a constituency where six in ten adults hold a degree, education is close to the hearts of Hallam’s voters.

Labour’s Jared O’Mara says schools there have suffered six-figures cuts, and Nick Clegg is critical of the government’s “blunderbuss approach”. But after breaking his party’s pledge to oppose a hike in student tuition fees, the subject is an Achilles heel.

“No-one wants to see young people saddled with debt,” Mr O’Mara says. For him, the campaign is a personal as well as a political battle. A sufferer of cerebral palsy, he says he has much to thank the NHS for, but believes the service is at breaking point the staff under too much pressure.

• THE overwhelmingly green landscape of Sheffield’s rural south west has long been a magnet for families, but this year its protection has become a political hot potato.

A series of stand-offs with council contractors charged with cutting down rows of mature trees led to scenes the local MP Nick Clegg controversially compared to “something you would expect to see in Putin’s Russia”.

On Rustlings Road, where the Hallam constituency borders Sheffield Central, the police were called out at dawn and arrests made.

“The police were very heavy-handed. They didn’t even tell the police and crime commissioner what was going on,” says Conservative candidate Ian Wright, who twice sought election to that post.

He lays the blame with the council, who, he says “lacked the commercial skill” to negotiate the wide ranging “Streets Ahead” maintenance deal it handed to the contractor, Amey.

“In many places the contractors have done a good job, moving trees that were dead or dying,” Mr Wright says.

“The trouble is that their contract makes it easier to just Tarmac over the area than to have a proper dialogue with residents.”

He says the police handling of the tree felling, and of other controversies in South Yorkshire, has “damaged its brand” and that the time may now be right to merge it with another force.

The council later apologised for the dawn operation, but Mr Clegg says it was guilty of “dramatic insensitivity”.

“Anyone who knows anything about south west Sheffield will know that the thing people are more attached to than anything is the astonishingly beautiful green character of the place,” he says.

“So to have so insensitively attacked the symbols of the area is cavalier in its disregard.”