Doncaster’s town motto, ‘Be Steadfast’, might well have been written for Richard Smith.
The 55-year-old opened a high end, luxury shoe shop in the heart of Doncaster town centre in 2017, and almost four years on he knows the first question on most customers’ lips. .
“They say to me, ‘Why here? Why not York, why not Leeds?’,” says Mr Smith, who runs The Shoe Room with wife Michelle.
“My only response is ‘Why not here?’. It’s well-connected, there are a lot of affluent areas and the architecture alone is evidence of its rich history. I tell them Doncaster is a great place to build a business and I mean it.”
Despite maintaining pre-Covid revenues throughout the last 15 months, Mr Smith doesn’t deny there are issues in Doncaster. Like many town centres, it has its fair share of empty shop units and as austerity deepened the number of those begging on the streets increased.
The government’s much-talked about levelling up agenda was launched to heal those very visible social and economic problems, but while Mr Smith agrees with the underlying aims he fears the reality will fall some way short.
“The way to effect real change is to give towns like Doncaster the freedom to spend the investment the way they think best and to involve those of us who live and work there,” he says. “I have a six-year-old son; I have a vested interest in making sure the future here is a good one, but sometimes I get the impression that money from these government funds comes with so many caveats that it ends up not doing as much good as it could.”
According to the Plan for the North report, while there are some parts of the region that can match the best in the world for innovation and enterprise, they are too easily outweighed by the places that continue to struggle with high levels of deprivation and worklessness.
Much of that is unsurprisingly blamed on the loss of traditional industries which left large gaps in local economies which have still not been refilled. It also claims that while individual projects demonstrate a capacity for reinvention, their wider impact has not been powerful enough to narrow the North/South divide.
Doncaster was recently awarded £25m as part of the Government’s Towns Fund designed to boost economic growth in areas which have been historically overlooked. The money is being used to transform the area around the town’s train station and promote various heritage locations and Don Valley MP Nick Fletcher insists it’s doing more than paper over the cracks.
“This isn’t just about making town pretty,” says the Conservative politician who won the seat from Labour’s Caroline Flint in 2019. “There is a real economic benefit to a project like this, but it is also just one piece of a much wider jigsaw.
“The Unity development is underway, which will deliver 3,000 new homes along with much needed business and enterprise space. It is those kinds of projects which will hopefully mean the next generation see a future for themselves here.”
If ambition is the catalyst for successful regeneration, Daniel Fell has it in spades. The chief executive of Doncaster Chamber is on something of a personal mission to gain city status for the town believing it would signal its ambition to step out of the shadows.
“There isn’t a massive amount of data in terms of the economic benefit of becoming a city, but it would be a really positive statement of intent,” he says. “It’s about Doncaster saying it won’t take second best and having a seat at the table when it comes influencing national policy.
“Over the last 10 years I think we have pulled the place up by its bootstraps and the success of everything from Doncaster Sheffield Airport to Cast Theatre is testament to that, but of course there is more we can do.”
One flagship project would be the proposed building of a new hospital in a prime town centre location. Doncaster has been earmarked as a potential site, but that was before the pandemic reduced central government coffers by around £4bn.
“I am an optimist by nature and the government is still indicating that it wants to grow rather than cut its way out of the pandemic,” adds Mr Fell. “A new hospital would be good for the people of Doncaster and it would also be a massive boost to town centre businesses.
“However, major projects alone won't reinvigorate the economy. We also need to build on the assets we have like the racecourse and the airport and look at how we boost and retain a skilled workforce. Those initiatives don’t tend to grab headlines but they are vital if we are serious about creating a thriving economy for the long-term.”
However, while Mr Fell is unashamedly optimistic about the future of Doncaster, there are others who say the reality for the town’s most deprived is much less rosy.
“Very rarely do those in power ask those living on the edges of society what they want and that’s maybe because they wouldn’t like the answers,” says photographer Les Monaghan, whose work often involves giving a voice to Doncaster’s marginalised. “I will never forget one teenage boy I interviewed recently who at 14 admitted that he didn’t have any hopes for the future. That’s heartbreaking, but sadly it’s not uncommon.
“Big developments are all well and good but often they don’t touch the lives of those who really need help. What they need are community centres and libraries, places on their doorstep which allow them to feel part of the fabric of society. Unfortunately, in so many places Asda and Home Bargains are the new community hubs.”
The recent investment by online giant Amazon into a planned new parcel depot in Doncaster, which will create 1,300 jobs, and the £400m inland port close to the M18 are often cited as evidence of the town moving up a league table which previously ranked it he 55th most poverty-stricken area of England out of over 32,000 neighbourhoods.
However, for many of those who call Doncaster home what the town needs as much as money is belief in itself.
“You can see the potential,” says Ian Blaylock, who in 2012 gave up the garage business he had run for 15 years to open Doncaster Brewery. “There are an awful lot of big industrial units bringing jobs to the area, but then you come into the town centre and see buildings like the Grand Theatre still boarded up. Sometimes it feels like a tale of two towns
“After the last 15 months what a lot of us need is reassurance and a degree of confidence in the future, but I’m not sure we’re going to get that. As people around here say, ‘Right now, Doncaster is a town which could do with a bit of a cuddle’.”