It's complicated...

The following is the full text of a letter which has been published - slightly abridged - in The Sheffield Telegraph today:

To the Editor, Sheffield Telegraph

The news that the date when a developer for Sheffield’s new retail quarter will be confirmed has been delayed by six months, and the earlier announcement that the council have earmarked £450,000 for specialist legal advice connected with negotiations over a single letting in the scheme, highlight the immense complexity of such projects.

Redevelopment of 7 hectares of established (and partly run-down or previously cleared) urban fabric to make way for a clean, easy to read and “permeable” shopping precinct of the type so beloved of retailers, can only be achieved by tying the city up in contractual knots for which future generations will not thank ours. It would be better to retain complexity on the ground with numerous separate interests working towards the same much-desired goal of an improved city centre, than to have a single entity dominating our property horizon for foreseeable time.

If consultations are proving tricky at this stage, it must follow that the Council will have to give ground on various points. The scheme already embodies a considerable loss of heritage and control in the centre; what further changes will be wrung out of the council to accommodate developers’ own agendas?

It is perhaps time to consider what a plan B could look like. An alternative based on working with local architects, developers and business and community groups, using smaller scale finance in a plot-by plot approach could lead quite quickly to a bright, attractive and distinctive centre. It would aim to be varied in character, with much more residential provision but still with a significant gain in shop space which could offset the demand for more mid-market and premium retail offers.

This has not been explored as a possible development strategy because since the mid-nineties the policy has been to pursue an imposed idea of very large retail units clustered into a critical mass around a couple of anchor points, all as part of a single scheme, owned and operated accordingly. It is is worrying to think how that might translate if (when) there is is a significant retail downturn in the future. There is the spectre of enormous, unadaptable empty spaces fronting designer squares that have no other function than to be the setting for those spaces.

The instant solution also requires instant finance from a single, external source and this will perpetuate an unhealthy relationship with "absentee landlords" that has often been cited as one of the reasons for Sheffield's relatively lowly status as a commercial centre. The flow of wealth is always outward, and this project looks set to be the same, the centre of Sheffield becoming another tradable asset for the international property markets. There would never again be the possibility of individual buildings and plots becoming locally owned, available to be used for locally originated purposes.

Such a plan B would appear to be a more chaotic and untidy solution at the outset, but it would be our own distinctive patchwork solution, a resilient centre that would be of greater long-term benefit for the people of this city, with retained wealth accumulating over time.

Rupert Wood
5, Laycock House
Cross Burgess Street
S1 4RH