Sheffield Central Library to be replaced by hotel? It’s not the full story, and it shouldn’t just be rejected out of hand


Sheffield Central Library, Surrey Street. © Copyright Chris Downer and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The instant reaction to today’s story in Sheffield’s Star newspaper “Chinese plan to turn Sheffield Central Library into five star hotel” is inevitable. People will of course be appalled, in fact horrified is probably a better word. Many won’t read any further than the headline, as the reaction on Twitter is already showing. But here’s why I don’t think we should dismiss this idea out of hand.

First of all, it’s the headline. It doesn’t tell the full story. It could easily have instead been “Plan to invest millions in building new Sheffield Central Library.” The headline instead is typical clickbait and will make many people react in anger without even reading the story. The reality is that IF this goes ahead Sheffield will get a new modern Central Library, and the older building that currently houses the library will be turned in to a five-star hotel. That’s something that the city doesn’t have at the moment and it needs it if it is to compete with other similar sized cities, something which I desperately wish it would do on a more level playing field.

Secondly, it’s about the appalling state of the Central Library building. Whilst it has some brilliant sculptures and art deco features a lot of its structure was knocked up on the cheap in the late 1920s/early 1930s. As a result, the steel frame is severely corroded, the window frames are almost falling out and the roof leaks to such an extent that it causes panic for art gallery staff every time there is a heavy deluge of rain. It also has terrible disabled access and its IT facilities are poor. If it was a 1960s build that was in a similar condition it would probably have been demolished by now, but because it is a beautiful and much-loved building the council has tried to keep it patched up and preserve it as best they can at a time when there is very little money around to invest in it properly.

At the moment this is just a proposal. There’s no guarantee it’ll happen and if it does become a firm plan it needs to be heavily scrutinised, but what it could give us could be something brilliant. Investors (who happen to be from China) would buy the current Central Library building from the city council and turn it in to a hotel thereby preserving one of the city’s favourite buildings. The city as a result gets a modern state of the art library building in return which I hope could be of some architectural significance too. I’m not someone whose instinct is to defend the city council’s ideas. I also love the Central Library and I’m there on average twice a month often more, so this is something that means a lot to me personally. But I’ve also seen the facilities that the new library buildings have around the country and they’re much better than what Sheffield has to offer (For example, I love the interior of the new Library of Birmingham). It may also give us the opportunity to create more space and move many books that are currently in storage on to the shelves where they can be borrowed more easily. It would also be nice if it could at the same time create more space for the city’s art collection which is similarly often in storage as there simply isn’t room to show them properly (at present it’s proposed that the Graves Gallery would move to the ground floor of the existing library building but perhaps there might be a better alternative).

I don’t deny there’s lots to consider properly in this proposal, and I know as little about it as is in the article in The Star. But we shouldn’t just reject it out of hand just because the headline is sensationalist and it involves wealthy overseas investors getting something they want too.

Devolution for Sheffield – a lopsided deal but hopefully one to give us confidence

Sheffield City Region

When I woke up to the news on Friday morning that Sheffield City Region was to get a devolution deal with the government with an elected mayor, I was excited and disappointed all at the same time. Excited that Sheffield had got its act together and jumped the queue but disappointed about the mayor. Largely I’m positive though as I think it’s about time that Sheffield moved out of the shadows of the other big cities, but it does create some interesting complications. This post is looking at some of those but is also my initial instinctive feelings about it all.

Devolution within England has always been controversial, not so much about the principle, but at what level it is done. As I’ve written before, I’ve always had a scepticism about the benefits that a Yorkshire Regional Assembly would bring to my home city of Sheffield. My heart loves the idea of a single body that represents the county in which I grew up, but my head tells me that as far as Sheffield is concerned it makes more sense to have something more focused on the one city and to arrange economic and transport development around the city and its hinterland, much of which falls outside Yorkshire. This post however isn’t intended to go over that argument again but instead it’s to look at the latest proposals and the complications they create in terms of lopsided devolution within their own city region.

The new devolution deal gives Sheffield City Region and its directly-elected mayor a large number of new powers over areas such as transport management, policy and spending, economic development, work benefits and post 19 skills. Whilst many of these are about co-operating with central government to work out what would suit the region best, rather than necessarily a whole new way of doing things, it’s a start. For me the most exciting part of it though is what it could lead to in terms of greater powers, rather than necessarily what’s on offer now. It’s not as big a deal as Greater Manchester got, but it’s a start and I imagine it will gain a momentum that will inevitably lead to further powers.  These powers however apply to the area of the combined authority, which is formally only Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley. Whilst there are a further five local authority areas that form the Sheffield City Region, only the four I’ve named are legally ‘constituent members’ which means the powers of the combined authority only cover those. This creates a lopsided deal that gives lots of powers to one bit of the city region and less to the other.

If you look through the devolution document it is littered with phrases such as “The directly elected Mayor of the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority will be responsible for a devolved and consolidated local transport budget for the area of the Combined Authority (i.e. the areas of the constituent councils)” which means it only applies to the four authorities of South Yorkshire not the whole of the city region. This means that one of the new powers the region gets relating to smart-ticketing will only apply to South Yorkshire and not to those other parts of the region for whom they will be as, if not more, beneficial, and perhaps lead to transport authorities in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire not wanting to invest as much in those areas or instead arguing with South Yorkshire over any ideas it comes up with that they could all pragmatically decide to implement across the whole area. Despite this there are other powers that sound more inclusive by not referring just to constituent councils but to the region as a whole such as “Powers over strategic planning, including the responsibility to create a spatial framework for the city region and to chair the Sheffield City Region Joint Assets Board.” This would mean that the mayor had powers over an area that never voted for it. Perhaps the new deal with encourage those authorities who are classed as ‘non-constituent’ to vote to become ‘constituent’ members but it doesn’t seem clear if this is something they are currently considering. If they did however it would not only make everything more joined up but it will also mean they get to choose a mayor who will have a big influence on the future economic prospects of their area whether they are constituent members or not. Somehow the new mayor will need to show that this doesn’t lead to the region becoming dysfunctional if it wanted to gain further powers in the future.

One area in which all parts of the region participate fully is the Local Economic Partnership (LEP). All nine local authorities are part of this body which is actually led by the private sector rather than local authorities, and whilst separate from the combined authority is inherently linked and more or less perceived externally as one body. The new mayor will also sit on this which emphasises how much all of these areas are part of the same economic region and attracting people to invest locally is something for all areas and outside investors won’t really see much difference between the Advanced Manufacturing Park (actually in Rotherham), Markham Vale (in Chesterfield) and Robin Hood Airport (in Doncaster) when one of the attractions will be being part of the Sheffield set-up.  I know I write as someone who lives in Sheffield itself, but one of the issues that I think has stymied the area is the unwillingness to embrace the Sheffield name. Whilst I know the people of towns such as Rochdale or Stockport for example are very proud of the distinctiveness of their towns and hate being lumped in with Manchester, I have detected a general acceptance from those who live there that as Manchester is the main urban centre for their region and has a generally positive reputation that they are a part of the brand that is Manchester. In South Yorkshire, and whilst I think most surrounding areas do see Sheffield as the main urban centre, the other towns feel a lot less attached to it. This may partly be because Sheffield’s brand and reputation as somewhere to look up to isn’t as strong as Manchester’s, or perhaps it’s because when you go between towns in South Yorkshire you pass through countryside rather than it being a continuous urban area. Really though Sheffield as a name should be a lot more powerful and needs to be embraced if everyone is to benefit. In the city’s industrial height, the ‘Made in Sheffield’ name was known throughout the world as a sign of quality, and Sheffield remains to this day the only city in the UK whose name has legal protections which means that companies wishing to use it need extra permission from the government. This should be used to its real potential by the wider region.

Despite my criticism of this lopsided bit of devolution I am still really impressed it is going ahead. I don’t like directly-elected mayors and I would be a little more relaxed about the idea if the mayor also had a small authority alongside to scrutinise decisions and hold reviews in to the policies that the mayor is or could be pursuing just as happens in London. But the argument about the mayor as a model is a whole other post. What I thing is good about this devolution deal though is that I hope it will lead Sheffield to become a bit more pushy and able to be confident about raising its profile more.

As someone who was raised in Sheffield and has lived here most of my life, I get very frustrated when, despite being England’s fourth largest city at around 560,000 people and a city region of around 1.8 million people, people largely ignore the city when they think of the major cities of the country. Many people have no idea that the city is so large or that it isn’t just some scruffy rust bucket in the North of England whose best days are behind it. Whilst this again is enough for a whole other post, I think this perception (or perhaps a lack of a perception) is due to a whole variety of factors which includes things as diverse as an economy that was centred on industries that suffered hugely in the 80s recession, but also not being a base for a regional TV station, not having a metropolitan county named after it, being officially the second largest city in its government region not the first, having two football clubs that haven’t been at the top of football for some time, and many other things. But if there’s one thing that working in Manchester has taught me it’s that Manchester is a city that has a confident swagger and pride that Sheffield doesn’t even come close to. I hope that the introduction of the devolution deal and the mayor will lead to a confidence to talk up the city rather than the main message that has come out of the council in the last few years of just how much the government is giving us a raw deal.  All councils think they get a raw deal from government, but constantly talking about it gives the impression that we are an impoverished backwater, and whilst I would never deny that poverty is a problem in our region, taking the powers that this devolution deal gives us means we can get on and do more about it ourselves.

I have always loved Sheffield and hopefully this deal will give the leading voices in the city region the confidence to talk up how much they love it too.

Heritage Open Days – part two

As much as I love history and architecture, there’s some other loves that can sometimes distract me from my weekend plans – sleep, coffee and blogs by other people who enjoy exploring places and whose writing is far more accomplished than mine. This morning after waking up late, I did as I usually do on a weekend morning put on some filter coffee and start up my laptop and open up some of my favourite websites. Suddenly, the next thing you know it’s nearly midday and you’ve done nothing useful, although I suppose relaxing on a day off is the whole point of having them really. But on to where I did get to…

Horn Handle Works, Club Garden Road, Little Sheffield

Horn Handle Works, Club Garden Road, Sheffield

Starting where I left off the previous day, I began this morning with a trip to another local factory, but unlike Portland Works this one is no longer used for its original purpose. It got off to a slightly flat start with rain, low clouds, a venue that was difficult to park near (it turned out it wasn’t but the pay and display behind the building wasn’t obvious) and a destination that was deserted when I arrived. Having wandered round an empty building I was about to leave when I stumbled on someone outside doing a tour with a small group. I tagged on the end and he started the tour again shortly after.

Horn Handle Works started off life as Hill Brothers who made the handles for umbrellas and walking sticks largely out of stag horn unlike other local companies who imported ivory and other rare bones from abroad. Next door was a small separate factory next door that made the umbrellas themselves. Although the company closed in the 1970s the building survived and has now been taken over by Regather, a local co-operative that is using the small building for a host of community activities and events. When I visited they were in the middle of preparing food for an event tonight, the smell of which made me very hungry.

Despite the lacklustre start and despite the history of the building still in the process of being uncovered by volunteers, the brief tour was interesting and the man who did it was pretty engaging. You really needed the tour though as this was about the history of the building and the wider Little Sheffield area rather than what there was to look at in the building itself which was fairly limited. What’s clear is that they’re still at the beginning of developing something bigger in a little known bit of the city and their next event – Little Sheffield Feast (based on a real festival that used to happen in the area) – is a sign that in future there will be much more to take part in.

Christ Church, Pitsmoor Road, Pitsmoor

Christ Church, Pitsmoor, Sheffield

My experience of Heritage Open Days is starting to look like it’s all about the factories and churches, but this visit was for another reason – my family history. Both my great grandparents George Wakefield and Sarah Jane Woolhouse and my great great grandparents (on a different side of the family) John Radley and Thirza Chapman, were married at this church within three years of each other. Having driven past lots of times this was a good opportunity to see inside.

What was beginning to concern me at this point however was that this was my second visit of the day, and there still no coffee and cake! But this place had a very local charm about it. Greeted by the vicar I was asked the standard question at all Heritage Open Days – “so are you visiting for any particular reason?” – and I was then pointed towards parish registers (which sadly didn’t cover the 1880s when my family were there) and a random large collection of photographs, news clippings, parish magazines and other items that the church had clearly dug out of a cupboard somewhere and piled up on the tables. That sounds critical, but really it’s not meant to be, and they’d produced some posters that explained a bit about the history of the building. Consequently there were a lot of “ooh that’s such and such a person” from local residents perusing the photographs.

For me though, most of all it was great to stand in the spot where my ancestors did and which ultimately resulted in me being born just under a century later.

Wincobank Hill Fort, Jenkin Road, Wincobank
and Wincobank Undenominational Chapel, Wincobank Avenue, Wincobank

This is a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. In a city that dines out on its industrial heritage, it all too often forgets about its much earlier history and that included the brigantine fort at Wincobank.

Wincobank Undenominational Chapel, Wincobank, Sheffield

This visit started off at Wincobank Undenominational Chapel which was built in 1841 by the sisters Mary Ann Rawson and Emily Read of Wincobank Hall. The chapel has a definite oldie worldy charm dominated by a huge (and apparently unique) organ, but the most interesting thing from visiting the chapel was discovering the story of these two phenomenal sisters who were leading lights in the campaign to abolish slavery, supported a variety freedom fighters and missionaries, who were benefactors to many local causes, and who should probably be much better known.

The bit I was most looking forward to with this visit was the guided tour of Wincobank Hill Fort. Led by a very knowledgeable geeky long-haired local guy in Brigantine costume complete with fake sword, and accompanied by two other local ‘friends’ of the fort, our small group of visitors were led past the dumped sofas on the street next door up to the woodland around the fort. The route that we took was actually well thought out as it led us along the hillside and up to the fort from below giving you a really good sense of the outer banks, ditches and ramparts and how sizeable the structure is. Reaching the top what was then really dramatically striking was its position. The views from the fort were dramatic, not only across the Don Valley but also across the Blackburn Valley towards Keppel’s Column and over northern Sheffield. Only by visiting the fort do you truly understand why it was built where it was and its strategic significance as you can see for miles.

The tour around the site was interesting, although there were moments when the main guide’s enthusiasm for the era needed reining in a bit as I got lost with all the detail of the people, the battles and the moments of Romano-British history that impacted on the site. It made me want to learn more about that time however. The walking tour over an hour and a half but it did give you a real sense of the significance of the place that you wouldn’t get from visiting on your own.

Wincobank Hill Fort, Wincobank, Sheffield

Wincobank Hill Fort is probably one the most significant historic monuments in Sheffield, if not the region, and yet it is little explored. What this visit really did was remind me how little we cherish our pre-industrial heritage with houses encroaching so closely to the fort that they felt as though they’d been built within the fort itself. Perhaps there is much more potential for the city to make more of this time in our history.

There ended my visits as part of Heritage Open Days. I’m looking forward to next year already.

Photographs from Heritage Open Days 2015

All of my photographs from Heritage Open Days 2015 on Flickr

Heritage Open Days – part one

Heritage Open Days is one of those things that’s always put in to my diary early, as soon as I know the date.  But sadly, it’s often ended up clashing with work commitments so with it this year falling on a clear weekend, and an already scheduled day off, it was obvious I had to plan a weekend of heritage, architecture and exploring Sheffield.  So here’s part one of my visits:

St. Catherine of Siena Church, Richmond Road, Woodthorpe

St. Catherine of Siena Church, Sheffield

Built in 1959 this is one of Sheffield’s most modern listed buildings as grade II, but most significantly it’s one of two churches in the city designed by Basil Spence of Coventry Cathedral fame.  The church was constructed for the new Richmond parish to serve the residents of the new Woodthorpe Estate that had grown up behind the church.

One thing I learnt straight away today was that the fall back fundraiser at Heritage Open Days is coffee and cake, as every place I visited had them offer.  However with no signs outside indicating that St. Catherine’s was part of Heritage Open Days I did feel ever so slightly as if I was intruding on a coffee morning. Despite this I pressed on in to the church.  It’s a fairly small and simply designed church, with little natural light and as an anglo-catholic church a strong smell of incense.  It also had slightly surreally music that started playing as you entered although this did however create a sense of calm and atmosphere that was pretty pleasant.

On the way out the priest appeared and pointed out a nice painting in a small hall behind the church proper which intriguingly shows the building the opposite way round from how it was built.  After a very short look around I went to examine the bell tower which personally I think is the best bit as it makes a fairly low key building stand out.

St. Paul Church, Wordsworth Avenue, Parson Cross

St. Paul's Church, Wordsworth Avenue, Sheffield

Having visited one of Basil Spence’s Sheffield churches I thought I’d go and explore his other one which as a grade II* is his Sheffield masterpiece.  Like St. Catherine’s, St. Paul’s was built in 1959 to serve a new housing estate which when built outside the Sheffield boundaries was unnamed and so unusually the parish church was named after the road it was on.

This building was more wholeheartedly in to the Heritage Open Day experience, with signs, information guides, people greeting you and telling you about the building, along with the usual coffee and cake.  However what it also had was a young enthusiastic trainee priest who wanted to discuss my faith. As it was a church I suppose I can’t really object but I always feel uncomfortable when ‘on their patch’ and asked to discuss my views on the church and whether I have any ‘spirituality’ with someone who so clearly wholeheartedly believes in something that I absolutely do not.  What was interesting though was discovering from him that the Archbishop of York has decided to use the opening of churches to the public over this weekend to go and engage more with the public in his province who don’t normally attend church, and Sheffield is this year’s focus for their efforts. With enthusiastic priests such as the one I spoke to I’m sure some of their churches will at least have a good future. During our conversation and after saying what I do for a living he did however also turn out to be one of the biggest Tim Farron fans I’ve met with the words “Wow, I can’t believe you know Tim Farron” being repeated several times during our conversation.

Back to the church.  Whereas St Catherine’s was a little gloomy, St Paul’s has lots of light with large windows at both ends and beautiful undulating walls and warm looking modern wooden pews.  Whilst clearly struggling with major 1950s design and technology flaws, it is still a masterpiece 60 years on.  It is archetypal minimalist modernism.  Once again though I have to say a bit about the bell tower which adopts a similar approach to St. Catherine’s and makes it obvious that it’s the same architect, but this one is also linked to the church via cloister like walkways which gives a sense of entering and leaving a peaceful sanctuary despite being in the middle of a Sheffield council estate.

Grenoside Reading Room, School Lane, Grenoside

Grenoside Reading Room, Grenoside, Sheffield

Now let’s go back in time.  Grenoside Reading Room started life in 1790 as a school room but has gone through various uses until it became a community building clearly very well used by local residents.  Along with yet more coffee and cakes (and some very impressive ones at that) the main focus of their participation was to celebrate the building and showcase what it does.  It had bunting fluttering outside, posters, two vintage cars parked in front, and displays showing many of the groups and activities that meet there.  It also had an exhibition from its local history group about health in Grenoside.

Unlike the other buildings architecture wasn’t really the focus here, but it was nice to see a lovely local building still being very actively used.  I also ended up catching up with a former local councillor for the area who happened to be on duty when I was visiting, in a day that despite being off work was developing a worryingly Lib Dem theme.

Walkley Community Centre (former Walkley Reform Club), Fir Street, Walkley

Walkley Community Centre (former Walkley Reform Club), Walkley, Sheffield

Tucked away in a backstreet off Walkley’s ‘high street’ of South Road is the former Walkley Reform Club, set up by local Liberals in the early 20th century, but now serving as the community centre.  Architecturally the building is not that significant but as this is Heritage Open Days it’s about history not just architecture, and the building has long held a significant place in the local community.

For me the political history was understandably a very interesting part, and this was thoroughly embraced by the volunteers involved in the building now and it’s impossible to go around the building without noticing many plaques and displays that show this off.  I don’t know why I should be surprised about that really given it’s the original reason for the building’s existence, but given the current political situation I thought they might be a little more shy about it.  Mind you there were the odd passing comments about how the Liberals were really quite left wing you know perhaps to appease the area’s currently left-leaning local residents.  The most fascinating part of the building was the billiard hall upstairs which included four full-size billiard tables whose size makes you realise how small the ones are that you see in pubs.  At the end of this room was a lovely commemorative window for members of the Reform Club who were killed in the First World War – a result of research by local historians spurred on by the recent commemorations of the start of that conflict.

Over a coffee (yes, more of that on offer again) I spent a long time talking to various volunteers involved in the centre about local history and a lot about family history generally – there’s and mine.  It was an enjoyable discussion and I suspect might lead to this not being my last visit to the building.

Portland Works, Randall Street, Highfield

Portland Works, Randall Street, Sheffield

My final visit of the day was something very different.  The campaign to save Portland Works from a planned redevelopment in to apartments has been very high profile in the city, and resulted in a very significant (and unusual) success in that the planning application was withdrawn and a fundraising effort resulted in it being sold to a not-for-profit company who now run it and are trying preserve the building whilst retaining both its traditional use and renovating it so new tenants will move and so make it financially sustainable.

Portland Works started off as the premises of Mosley’s cutlery manufacturers and was built in 1880 in an area that at that time would have been full of other cutlery works.  This was a place that had really gone to town on making sure that it was a worthwhile experience for those of us who were visiting – clear signs outside, a small group of volunteers welcoming people and handing out a short leaflet that included a self-guided tour, and then many other volunteers stationed around the building.

The tour takes in buildings dedicated to various stages of the cutlery making process – grinding, polishing, maintenance of the machinery, plating and also the offices and showrooms.  What was especially interesting was seeing how much of the old machinery is still in place and still being used by craftsmen today to continue with the making of bespoke knives, and also other businesses in some of the newly refurbished workshops with artists and one man who appeared to make electric guitars.  To my surprise, the tour also gave you the opportunity (health and safety should look away now) to go up some fairly flimsy looking metal stairs right up on to the flat roof of one of the old buildings where there was a great view over the building and surrounding area.

All in all a fascinating visit to a building that I’d heard and read so much about but not actually visited before.  It also goes to show that given the opportunity, people can turn traditional buildings that might be deemed scruffy and antiquated in to a viable thriving centre for craftspeople and artists.

So there ended the first part of my Heritage Open Days weekend with more to come…

Photographs from Heritage Open Days 2015

All of my photographs from Heritage Open Days 2015 on Flickr