Why Sheffield should reject council shake-up plan after John Lewis blow: Richard Wright

IT is not often that a city gets the chance to step back and reassess where it wants to be. With large parts of the economy shut down for months at a time, the past year has left a huge question mark over Sheffield’s future.

The closure of John Lewis is a major blow to Sheffield's reputation, writes Richard Wright.
The closure of John Lewis is a major blow to Sheffield's reputation, writes Richard Wright.

More people now are claiming unemployment benefits in Sheffield than at any point in the pandemic, a number that is likely to rise still more. Meanwhile the issue of child poverty, a problem in the city for years, has become even more marked while schools have been closed.

There are many businesses that simply haven’t survived the restrictions of the past 12 months. The closure of John Lewis was a body blow not just to the 300 people directly employed there but for other businesses across the centre, many of which relied on the store to pull in shoppers from across the region.

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These are extraordinary times that require bold, ambitious leadership. Much of Sheffield’s economic strength is still lying dormant and we need leaders who recognise this potential – and know how to unlock it.

Richard Wright is a former director of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce.

The city has a lot to offer: a young, enterprising workforce, a rich industrial heritage, two world-renowned universities.

These assets have already paved the way for institutions such as the Olympic Legacy Park and the Advanced Manufacturing Park.

Some 1,500 manufacturing apprentices have trained with the AMRC Training Centre since its establishment in 2014, creating a skilled workforce for local businesses and providing well-paid jobs in some of the most deprived areas of the region.

As well as continued investment in skills, we need to transform the region’s transport and digital connectivity, linking Sheffield into a high-speed rail network to connect it better to other Northern cities and the rest of the country.

Sheffield's recovery from the Covid pandemic is in the spotlight.

This means commitment from government to building the Eastern Leg of HS2, integrating this with Northern Powerhouse Rail which will run across the Pennines to Manchester and transform connectivity across the region.

Building better transport infrastructure expands Sheffield’s travel to work area, which grows the labour market. And it is a huge talent pool such as this that attracts businesses.

However, the council’s own identity crisis has meant that plans for Sheffield’s future have been well and truly left in the lurch. On May 6, voters will be given the option to revert back to the former committee model, which was dropped in 2000 in favour of the leader and cabinet model.

It couldn’t come at a worse time. Overhauling the council’s structure now is a huge distraction from the job in hand. The problem with a committee system is that it stifles dynamism. Its very nature is inherently biased towards inaction. If no-one can agree on something, then the default is to do nothing.

Progress for devolution in this region moved at a snail’s pace when it relied on a committee of four local authorities to push forward an agenda. Sheffield’s economy lost out on a huge amount of money promised by government as a result.

Are we really prepared to make the same mistake so soon? Even in normal times a committee system hampers progress. As we try to get back on our feet after a pandemic, it is madness.

Having spent a career in Sheffield’s private sector, including a decade at the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, I know that what businesses need from the council is a trusted partner that can provide clarity and decisive leadership.

I have not always agreed with the council but spending the next 12 months rewiring its internal structure seems to be – at best – a waste of time and energy better spent on rebuilding the economy. At worst, it could leave a vacuum of leadership at a moment when the city is crying out for an ambitious strategy, agile governance and a clear road forward.

Now is the time to accelerate Sheffield’s transformation into a vibrant, economically sustainable city centre. We need to stay on the front foot of innovation and enterprise, embracing new technologies and new ways of working in an increasingly connected world.

An unsteady, indecisive local council would put us on the back foot from the start, slamming the brakes on a recovery and draining our city of ambition. Huge changes are happening not just across the UK, but the world. If we hesitate now, Sheffield will get left behind.

Richard Wright is a former director of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce.

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