Constituency profile: Sheffield Hallam

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THE SUN is out in Sheffield Hallam. The beginnings of spring evident in the plush green of the perfectly-pruned trees tower over the pavements just a stone’s throw from Nick Clegg’s constituency office in Fulwood.

Here, young mothers and retirees meet for mid-morning coffee before heading to their local greengrocer along a neatly-dotted row of independent businesses.

Houses are desirable, schools have good ratings and the distant murmur of heavy traffic suggests the cosmopolitan offerings of the city centre are still within grasp.

The mood here this morning is surprisingly sedate for one of the most hotly-contested and significant constituencies in the fast-approaching general election. A scattering of posters and placards - either or Labour or Liberal Democrat - are the only indication that this is where political history could be made in May.

What should be the safest Liberal Democrat seat in the country has been grappling with something of an identity crisis since 2010, when their local MP went from being the leader of the number one protest vote party to Deputy Prime Minister.

Shortly after taking up the post, he oversaw the trebling of university tuition fees, after promising in their pre-election manifesto that the Lib Dems would scrap them.

This apparent volte-face is not likely to be forgotten anywhere, but perhaps least of all in a city which boasts the highest student retention rate, a constituency where 60 per cent of the working age population have a degree.

“I don’t think he has done himself any favours here with the student vote,” said mother-of-four Emily Davis, aged 38.

“There aren’t a lot of students who live here, but there are a lot of people who went to university in Sheffield and have stayed on, and this tends to be the area they move to.”

“We both went to uni in Sheffield,” adds mother-of-one Kerry Denning, aged 31.

“Even when your children are young you think about the cost of their education.”

Fellow Fulwood residents and graduates Claire O’Malley and Joseph Todd, both 24, believe the surge in popularity of the Green party could lose Clegg a sizeable amount of so-called protest votes.

Miss O’Malley said: “I think he has been like a lap dog for the Tories. The again he’s blocked a lot of things the Tories have suggested.”

“At the minute he seems like he’s really trying to show a lot of the things he’s done for local issues,” added Mr Todd.

“He’s lost the student vote. There are still a lot of traditional voters here, but my biggest priorities are green policy, renewable energy and recycling.”

It has been suggested that tuition fees is one of the predominant reasons for making Labour’s Oliver Coppard a serious contender for the seat, which has not been won by his party since it was formed in 1885.

According to the latest poll from Lord Ashcroft, Coppard is ahead with 30 per cent, while Clegg is three points behind.

While the Conservative candidate Ian Walker is at a respectable 19 per cent, there is little doubt this is a two-horse race, one with huge implications for the Lib Dem leader. Forecasters and party insiders have suggested there is a strong possibility that if Clegg were to lose this constituency, he could be forced to step down.

Catherine Greatorex, aged 30, is the owner of flower shop Petalis, which Clegg popped his head in on Valentine’s Day.

“I’ve never seen so many Labour signs around here,” she said.

“I think people around here like him and like what he does for the area. But tuition fees are important to everyone, rich and poor.

“I was brought up Labour and I definitely feel more Labour, but this area doesn’t really feel it. The NHS will be the biggest decider for me.”

One of the more recent polls suggests that Coppard, who is 33 and was born and raised in the area, is currently just three points behind his rival.

There is sympathy for Mr Clegg in Hallam, however. Many feel he has been unfairly scapegoated by the Conservative party during his time in office.

“It’s a shame because he’ll only be remembered for the bad,” said Ms Denning.

Greengrocer John Read, 61, owner of Nether Greens, said: “An awful lot of people here live and work at the university or for the NHS and there are a huge amount of young families who might not like some of the things the coalition have done.

“It’s not like he was the leader of a Lib Dem government, though.

“I can’t vote for the Labour lad, anyway. I am a Spurs man. He supports Arsenal.”