Norman Pickavance: Steel City could show the way to a brighter Britain

Sheffield was a bellwether of the wider national mood in the EU referendum; now other cities could learn from its spirit of collaboration.
Sheffield was a bellwether of the wider national mood in the EU referendum; now other cities could learn from its spirit of collaboration.
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The British are not known for revolution. We are usually slow to take to the barricades, far too measured for all the fuss. That was until June this year, when we voted to leave the European Union; to go it alone and set off without a clear plan.

But what next? People have had their say through the referendum; quite rightly, they now expect their voice to be heard as we shape the nation’s economic future. The vote to leave highlighted a disengagement, disenchantment and disconnection that had been ignored for too long. As we look to the future, reconnection will be critical: giving people a greater level of ownership over the places where they live and work.

To do this, we have to act locally – from Yorkshire to Westminster. Cities will be the drivers of future prosperity, but they cannot thrive as merely functional centres. They must be vibrant communities, ones where people’s needs and ambitions come to the fore. If we want to build the “strong and vibrant economy” Chancellor Philip Hammond spoke about, we need to work at a city level and to start with the places that are getting it right.

Take Sheffield. Whereas Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds voted Remain, Sheffield voted Out in almost exactly the same proportions as the whole nation, so can be seen as a bellwether of the wider national mood.

It might not be widely known, but Sheffield has led the world to growth before and is doing so again. The site of the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ is now home to the Advanced Manufacturing Park, where Boeing and Rolls-Royce are developing pioneering technologies with global impact. If you’re looking for solid symbols of the potential for Britain to be resurgent – this one’s hard to beat.

The coming together of universities, industry, local authorities and entrepreneurs is now seeing a steady and intelligent development of all kinds of physical and cultural assets that Sheffield owns. Look at Lady Canning’s plantation, the first ever crowd funded mountain bike trail in England where local people led and local authorities followed.

Look then at the Grade II Head Post office where an empty piece of Victorian architecture has been restored to life, not just to house Hallam University’s Institute of Fine Arts, but also with fine public spaces and with porters drawn from the ranks of retired postal workers to maintain a real sense of continuity.

Look at Sheffield’s micro breweries, which emerged a decade and more before the craft beer revival across the rest of the country and have become – as Professor Vanessa Toulmin at the University of Sheffield, says – the “cultural glue that holds the city together”.

In one collaboration after another, the city is getting lots of things right. And critically, it all fits with Sheffield’s spirit of craft and making, the virtues of its location and the physical assets of its history – that makes the city more distinctive.

So what does this amount to? Neil Burchenall, who co-founded Sheffield Digital, points to his recent personal experience of a Damascene moment – a buzz in the city centre on a Thursday night that hadn’t been there in the two decades before. A buzz? Is that all we get for all that effort, energy and money? But ‘a buzz’ is no trivial return, if you know that vibrancy is your goal.

Another key aspect of a successful city and vibrant economy is inclusion; closing the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Bringing together the incredible diversity of economic, social and artistic talent that exists is central to the goal of making Sheffield a truly vibrant place.

And if a city is an ecosystem, then the gravity within that system is trust. Trust enables everything. It drives collaboration and it speeds progress.

Right now, Sheffield is looking at where to site the HS2 station, to redevelop a key city quarter, build a new tramlink, win the right to host the Great Exhibition of the North and maybe become one of three cities in the world, where Elon Musk builds his revolutionary Hyperloop transportation system. It cannot do any of those things quickly or effectively unless people trust each other.

Trust is the key to growth. Trust requires consensus, not domination or the silencing of alternative views. Sheffield understands this better than most cities.

So here we are at a moment where there are a variety of routes forward. We need to find a British way that is practical, true to itself, a bit modest but genuinely innovative – a bit like Sheffield.

Sheffield was once globally admired as a hub for innovation – and it could be again, with the right collective endeavour. As part of Grant Thornton’s Vibrant Economy agenda, we recently brought together over 200 of the city’s public and private sector leaders to discuss how Sheffield can forge a future as a capital for innovation. The engagement that has followed from that event showed that there is a desire from people to be involved in shaping their city’s future. We will be repeating the exercise in cities across the country.

There is a debate beginning, not just about how we manage the realities of Brexit, but how we maximise the potential of our cities and communities. History will record that it was the latter that really mattered.

Norman Pickavance is Partner at Grant Thornton, championing the Vibrant Economy agenda and former policy adviser.