Last week I went to an election hustings to ask candidates what their policy was on heritage not because I was expecting instant answers but because not one manifesto I had read really seemed to consider heritage at all. Given the Council policy on heritage is a mere two paragraphs that wasn’t really a surprise. Nor is this a recent thing in Sheffield or dependent on what party controls the council. Likewise the idea of tourism for anything other than festivals or the great outdoors doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s agenda.
After hearing 5 minutes of each of the six candidates talking about their hopes and dreams for Sheffield it was obvious that none of them had heritage on their mind either as a matter for neighbourhood pride, green policies or economic regeneration. In the end there were 3 of us asking questions about heritage, myself about how with the new planning laws coming in we can protect our heritage against fast track planning decisions and speculative developers. A second questioner asking how we preserve our parks and keep them as a community asset , and a third questioner asking how we can keep our old buildings and develop an improved retail centre which fits in with Sheffield’s unique character and keeps finance within the city and not going to outside developers.
All six candidates stated they felt Sheffield’s heritage was important to them and spoke quite stirringly in favour. However I was left with the thought that whereas every candidate thought it was the right thing to say, they didn’t really understand the reasons why they should. There was mention of Castlegate and the Old Town Hall and how they saw this as a place for re-development but the idea would seem to be bring in developers and that would generate knock on funding for the Old Town Hall and the other old buildings round about. To me they had it the wrong way round. A beautifully restored Old Town Hall and a Castle Park are what would regenerate the area and bring in useful investment. We have around 10 hotels within walking distance of Castlegate. Are they going to come to tall office blocks and student accommodation blocks or to see the ruins of a medieval castle, and a historic building central to Sheffield’s growth as a city?
How would a concentration on office blocks and student rooms help link the other parts of Sheffield’s history together such as the Victoria Quays which is fast approaching its bi-centenary, the unique fire and police station of Westbar, Kelham Island Museum, Cholera Monument and Manor Lodge. Linked together we present a package like no other package in any other city.
We had a candidate talking about saving buildings as a charitable exercise or a rare flash of grassroots involvement. Indeed there was a lot of talking about grassroots involvement but not connected to our heritage. A lot of talking of bringing in new jobs and investment too but not a mention of tourism. There is money in our heritage and passion from the “grassroots” which is just as marked in Sheffield as it is in the rest of the country but has yet to be part of any local politician’s ideas for a “vibrant city” People like old buildings and feel passionate about it to sign petitions in the thousands. The majority of small to medium businesses are in historic buildings. Many rely on the historic character to attract customers, others starting new businesses gravitate to the old buildings because of cost, proximity to similar businesses they have is a unique building that stands out from the rest, and easier to fit into the local community. The vast majority of startup businesses start within listed building.
We three didn’t get any real answers to our questions. I didn’t expect any. What I got from the experience is that we have a long way to go to any local politician seeing our heritage as an economic asset or anything we should be worrying about when money is in short supply. It is seen more as a vanity project when there is money coming in rather than something that can generate money. That needs to change.