Steel and socialism give way to sex and shopping in the post-Blunkett era
ROBERT BEAUMONT IN SHEFFIELD lunkett Is Blind' screamed a pertinent piece of graffiti in Sheffield city centre in the 1980s. This wasn't just a statement of the bleeding obvious, as a London cabbie might say, but a condemnation of David Blunkett's stewardship as leader of Sheffield City Council for the seven years before he became MP for Sheffield Brightside in 1987. Blunkett's council became a national joke as it strove to stem the irresistible tide of Thatcherism. The decline of the steel industry, the city's lifeblood, provided Blunkett and his civic henchmen with a groundswell of genuine support for their battle against capitalism, but they squandered this support in spectacular fashion with policies from the pages of Alice In Wonderland. Threehour debates on the rights of goldfish and endless motions condemning General Pinochet combined to make the nuclear-free Town Hall a laughing stock, as the red flag fluttered on its roof. What about our roads, our buses, our houses and our schools, residents demanded. What about them, indeed?
Blunkett, wisely, moved on. But has the council? Up to a point, Lord Copper. The loony Left has disappeared, but the resentment felt by ordinary citizens against their city fathers remains It is well expressed by Julia Gash, one of Sheffield's leading businesswomen who, having first carved out a successful career in children's fashion, now specialises in erotica — very sophisticated erotica, mind, not the stuff to be found in those blacked-outwindow Private Shops. She runs a sex emporium in the Devonshire Quarter, the independent retail heart of the town. Her Gash events, which include erotic writing evenings, striptease classes and courses in self-defence, are incredibly popular. She has also opened shops in Leeds and York, and is full of praise for the can-do councils there. About Sheffield Council, however, she is withering. 'The council tries to pretend it's up there with the big boys, but it's fundamentally anti-business. Its failures have been masked by the shedload of money that's come from Europe, under the Objective One initiative which has helped regenerate the heart of the city. But the council shouldn't be allowed to hide. It constantly lets local retailers and residents down. We get precious little support or encouragement and no one does anything to promote the city.'
Perhaps councillors might like to visit Julia's shop for some enlightenment? I'm talking political enlightenment, of course, not sexual: David Blunkett's later career has already offered them a cautionary tale in that respect.
There have been some spectacular failures in Sheffield since those hazy, crazy days of the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire. Two that stand out are the World Student Games of 1991, for which embattled residents are still paying, and the Lottery-funded National Centre for Popular Music, which closed after only 11 months under a mountain of debt. The latter debacle is ironic since Sheffield has spawned some excellent rock singers and bands over the years. No, I'm not thinking of Gordon Brown's favourites, the mysteriously overrated Arctic Monkeys, but of Joe Cocker, Pulp, Richard Hawley and, in their (very 1980s) day, The Human League, ABC and Heaven 17. Hawley's third album, Coles Cotner, recorded in Sheffield, is named after an old meeting place for courting couples, where John Lewis now stands.
Coles Corner will see the light of day again during the next couple of years. The John Lewis building is to be demolished to make way for an 860,000 sq ft retail development masterminded by Hammerson — which may enable the city centre to fight back against Meadowhall, the giant shopping complex developed by anti-European campaigner Paul Sykes on an old steelworks site on the outskirts of the city. Hammerson is not the only developer to invest in the city centre. CTP St James is building the iconic, awardwinning St Paul's Place, while Town Centre Securities, founded by legendary Leeds entrepreneur Arnold Ziff, has bought Suffolk Road car park by the station. Further afield, Shepherd Developments — in a pioneering community initiative — is helping to regenerate the former mining area of Beighton.
There is no doubt that the demise of the coal and steel industries hit Sheffield incredibly hard. There's precious little left of either now. Symbolically, the derelict site of the local National Union of Mineworkers headquarters is being transformed into a highquality office block, while the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire, an upper-crust trade association founded in 1624, is a curious reminder of steel's halcyon days. It was as Margaret Thatcher arrived at a white-tieand-tails Master Cutlers' feast in 1983 that she was greeted with a barrage of eggs from an 'unwelcoming party', prompting one Cutler to say to another, 'These people can't be poor, throwing eggs at the price they are.' Not surprisingly, such sentiments did not go down well with Blunkett and his comrades.
sthe Socialist Republic crumbled under the weight of its own lunacy, the city became defined, to the outside world at least, by a film and a football match. The film was The Full Monty and the football match was the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in April 1989 at Hillsborough, home of Sheffield Wednesday. The Full Monty launched the careers of Robert Carlisle, Hugo Speer and Mark Addy, but the real star of the film was the rugged, hilly city itself and the resilience of its people. The Hillsborough tragedy, in which 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death, still provokes strong feeling today, mainly because of the widespread (and many feel unwarranted) criticism of Sheffield's police and emergency services.
George Orwell once wrote that 'Sheffield could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the old world', which is harsh. Perhaps he wasn't acquainted with Birmingham. He might revise his view today if he spent a few hours in the tranquil Winter Gardens in the heart of the city. These gardens, set in the largest urban greenhouse in Europe, are the jewel in Sheffield's crown, a wonderful example of the imaginative use of space in a crowded city centre. Orwell, however, would have recognised another Sheffield scenario: David Blunkett now lives in middle-class comfort on the Duke of Devonshire's Chatsworth estate in nearby Derbyshire. Animal Faml, anyone?