Doncaster, not Leicester, calls the shots in Sheffield
The Full Monty, the 1997 comic hit about a group of unemployed Sheffield steelworkers, leaves outsiders with three misleading long-term impressions about the city – that steelmaking died; that low value jobs were the only replacement; and that the better-off largely fled the city.
None is true. Advanced steel manufacturing is alive and flourishing in Sheffield; it just doesn’t employ the numbers it used to. The city now has a diversified industrial and professional employment base – ranging from the now celebrated Sheffield Forgemasters to a Boeing research centre and a new Rolls Royce research and manufacturing centre, two highly successful universities, major health and sports employers, and a digital business centre.
As for the better-off, Nick Clegg’s Hallam constituency is one of the richest outside the south east of England, with amenities extending well beyond a rejuvenated city centre. An east-west divide largely separates richer from poorer in Sheffield – but the better-off still live and work in the city. As one business leader puts it, “the Pennines limit the scope for the middle and professional classes to flee, as they did in large numbers from Liverpool, Manchester, Bradford and Birmingham.”
Sheffield’s economy is therefore in reasonable shape, with a degree of optimism among business leaders despite the likely impact of public sector cuts. There is little of the sense of urgent civic crisis which, in other cities I have visited, is driving support for a mayor to make up for weak strategic leadership and vision.
Add to this the strong ebullient character of the Lib Dem leader of the City Council, Paul Scriven – “who acts rather like a Mayor already”, says Phil Jones, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam university – and the perceived disaster of an elected mayor 18 miles down the road in Doncaster, and the current lack of enthusiasm in the city for an elected mayor is not hard to fathom.
Jeremy Clifford, acting editor of the Sheffield Star, thought views might change if David Blunkett wanted the job. The popular former Home Secretary looks back on his leadership of the city council with fierce pride, but he has no desire to return to the Town Hall and gives an unambiguous “no” when asked.
This remains “no” when pressed on the potentially great power and impact of the mayoral office. Julie Dore, the new Labour leader on the city council – who is only a few seats short of unseating Paul Scriven – also has no desire to be Mayor, believing that the mayoral model concentrates too much power in one person. A phone-in I did with BBC Radio Sheffield failed to arouse much enthusiasm, for or against a Mayor.
It is hard to exaggerate the impact of Doncaster in discrediting the mayoral idea in Sheffield. Whereas in Birmingham, Coventry and Bristol – all far closer to London – business and media leaders, and even some local politicians, compare their civic leadership unfavourably to Boris and Ken in London, all the comparisons made in Sheffield are with Doncaster, which now has a its second maverick mayor running.
Doncaster council today started the process for removing their mayor, which could lead to a referendum seeking abolition of the mayor on the same day in May 2012 when Sheffield votes on whether to introduce one.
By contrast, another significant mayoral development this week is the resignation of Leicester’s senior Labour MP Sir Peter Soulsby to stand in the first mayoral election in the city. This will take place this May following Leicester council’s decision to move in the opposite direction to Doncaster and embrace a mayor.
The train from Sheffield to London stops at Leicester, and there will be keen interest among other cities in the Midlands and north if the Leicester mayor makes a notable difference. But for the moment, it is Doncaster not Leicester which calls the mayoral shots in Sheffield.