Bernard Ginns: Misfortune and carelessness in the ‘Socialist Republic’

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CHOOSE your battles wisely, the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu said.

I wonder if those at the top of Sheffield City Council considered his words when they decided to pick a fight with Next, the retail giant, which they went on to lose.

Or when they decided to turn up the pressure on property developer Hammerson in an attempt to kickstart the stalled Sevenstone retail project.

The move resulted in the council terminating the agreement, raising a big question over the regeneration of the city centre.

Once might be regarded as misfortune, but twice looks like carelessness, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde.

Now it has emerged that the successful MADE festival won’t be returning to Sheffield this year.

Just what is going on in the place once described as the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire?

The retailer Next wanted to develop a £10m home and garden store at Meadowhall, but the council rejected the application for planning permission on the grounds of harm to city centre trade.

The local authority spent more than £31,000 defending its decision when developer British Land appealed to a public inquiry.

John Mothersole, the council’s chief executive, has said that civic leaders have a duty to “maintain an equilibrium” and “that means making decisions for the medium to long term in the broader best interests of the city”.

He has dismissed suggestions that the local authority is in denial over modern shopping trends as consumers shun high streets in favour of cheaper goods on the internet and days out at shopping malls.

But the Government planning inspector ruled in favour of the development. Lord Wolfson, chief executive at Next, did not pull his punches.

He said: “Sheffield City Council should stop wasting its time trying to prevent investment in the city and instead focus on revitalising the city centre.

“The commercial heartland of the city continues to fall further and further behind the other great industrial cities of Britain.

“Leeds has built the Trinity centre, Birmingham the Bullring and Manchester the Arndale Centre. Liverpool, Newcastle, Leicester, Bristol, Derby and others continue to revitalise their commercial centres.

“Meantime, what has the city’s executive team done for Sheffield’s retail centre? My view as a shopkeeper: not much.”

Regarding Sevenstone, the council CEO said in May that the city “will not wait much longer” for Hammerson to start work on the retail project, which stalled in 2009.

In response, Peter Cole, chief investment officer at Hammerson, gave every indication that the developer was committed to the £400m scheme.

The company had made “a substantial investment” in the scheme and continued to work with retailer John Lewis and the council to “reach a firm conclusion on the way forward”, he said.

But a month later the council announced it was ending its agreement with Hammerson due to lack of progress and said it wanted to find another company willing to take over the project.

A disappointed Mr Cole said the scheme needed retailers wanting to commit and viable income from rents before it could proceed. Meanwhile, a third of the city centre continues to stand derelict and may start to draw unwelcome parallels with Bradford’s stalled regeneration.

And then last week the council confirmed the disappointing news that MADE festival, a new bright spot in the city’s business calendar, would not be returning for the fourth consecutive year.

Organisers of the festival succeeded in presenting the city as a dynamic and welcoming place, creating a “Davos for entrepreneurs” by bringing some of Britain’s biggest and best business leaders to Sheffield for a day or two of inspiring talks and seminars.

A statement from the council said “it was agreed after the 2012 event that the format would be reviewed and refreshed in order to future proof the brand”.

The council said it has issued a revised brief to the market for a delivery partner, which has had significant interest, and promised a series of high-profile MADE events during Global Entrepreneurship Week in November and a full return for the festival next year.

Meanwhile, Seven Hills, the PR agency behind the first three MADE festivals, has been staging similarly successful events elsewhere in the UK.

Taken together, these can be seen as blows to the city’s standing.

I know the council has had to contend with cuts, but it should be careful about developing a reputation for being anti-business.

No-one wants a return to the dark old days, do they?