The day after Sheffield City Council approved an application for another 89 properties on the old Richardson’s site between Alma Street and Russell Street seems apt for a meeting of Kelham Island residents organised by our local councillors. But when our councillors met up with the 50 or so local residents, organisations and business owners in the classroom at Kelham Island Museum, they didn’t quite get what they had anticipated from their careful planning.
The meeting was designed to be a way of capturing people’s concerns and ideas with the intention of seeing what could be done to try and resolve them. To achieve this, they’d brought in a facilitator who asked people to go to the middle of the circle of people, write on a bit of paper an issue they wanted discussed, honk a horn (which in my view was perhaps one of the worst things he could have suggested if wanted to avoid us thinking it was all a bit ludicrous) and then stick it on to a board. From my point of view, and apart from the horn, all well and good. The idea being then to break in to corners of the room allocated to each issue and we could move round and talk about them in groups. Again, all well and good. However, the meeting soon degenerated in to a way of having a go at the councillors and expecting the councillors to simply tell everyone what they were doing already to resolve issues that we had yet to discuss. This perhaps wasn’t helped by one of the councillors admitting that she had never attended anything with residents in the area and so giving the impression that she didn’t know the local issues, but I also felt that blaming the councillors for them when our specific councillors aren’t in charge of the council and cannot resolve every problem was a little unfair.
However, order soon returned and apart from the odd moan about councillors, it then turned in to a positive group discussion about what we all wanted thanks to strict time keeping on each issue. Generally there were a number of issues on which everyone was agreed – parking, crime, street cleaning, street lighting, and developments happening that perhaps don’t fit with what people now want from the area. But what struck me was that the discussions that got people most animated apart from perhaps parking was when we veered off in to ideas for what the vision for the area should be. Many of the ideas were great, like more trees and open space, better signage for visitors, something for the families that will start to move in, more community shops (as opposed to big chains), and how we bring the community together more. It was all good stuff, and although perhaps not all of it was consistent or realistic, what it served to do was highlight what really needs to change about Kelham Island. It’s a great area and each individual block of flats has a decent community spirit, certainly mine does, but we haven’t really come together as a wider area to discuss what we want. We were demanding that our councillors make the area better, but we couldn’t really tell them what we were demanding as we hadn’t ever discussed it.
What I did feel uncomfortable with however was the idea that we should just expect the council to make Kelham Island better. Some of the basic council services like street cleaning and broken street lights, are things that a council should just do as a minimum, but bigger more visionary types things, can’t just be done immediately, will involve lots of groups, organisations, businesses and people, and in my view certainly can’t just be put in to practice by individual councillors who represent around 13,000 electors each (and in the case of Central Ward, more like 28,000), have other demands on their time, and crucially may not actually have the same vision for the area especially given that they don’t live in it. We should want the support of councillors and want them to help facilitate and break through the blockages in the council – as a former councillor myself that’s what I think the role is – but on the bigger issues they really need to be guided by what the community wants. If we continue to discuss this we will no doubt establish that we can’t all agree on what we want the community to be, but so far we haven’t even drawn up a list. One thing I noticed is that there may once have been those kinds of discussions when the residential developments first started to appear, such as Cornish Place, but they haven’t been had in the nearly three years I’ve lived here now, and what has changed in the meantime is that we’re now probably at more of a critical mass of people to make us a more viable community that can demand recognition for its own ideas.
I hope tonight’s meeting is the start of something positive for the future. I’ve loved Kelham Island since I moved in and hope to be living here for some time. I can give you many different reasons for that, but one is that it is something pretty unique in Sheffield, and hopefully the enthusiasm and ideas from people tonight can be harnessed to make it even better. But what we need to do is push it forwards and help make it happen ourselves rather than just expecting someone else to sort it out for us.