While Roubaix was built on the textile industry, the growth of Sheffield — nicknamed ‘Steel City’— in the nineteenth century was driven by the iron and steel industry and, to a lesser extent, by cutlery manufacture; and, again, it was specialization that caused its rapid decline from the early 1980s. The city's initial response to the crisis bore the stamp of radical municipal socialism,16 but in the mid-1980s it was converted to entrepreneurialism (Seyd, 1990). The new focus on the city's brand image by the newly formed public–private partnership, the Sheffield Economic Regeneration Committee, was expressed through the implementation of a ‘flagship project’ intended to promote Sheffield's economic recovery: it was to hold the 1991 World Student Games, which necessitated the construction of a number of international-standard sporting facilities in the Lower Don Valley, the part of the city most severely affected by the crisis in the steel industry. But the games ended in failure, leaving the city to face a sizeable debt17 that seemed to be an additional constraint on urban regeneration. From the early 1990s, the city's élites changed their strategy: a new public–private partnership was created and this time city centre renewal was viewed as the key to economic regeneration of the whole city.
So, as this article will now show, Sheffield provides a different example of gentrification of a city centre, one led by the authorities. Unlike Roubaix, the strategy here was clearly more planned, the influence of central government made itself more markedly felt and the symbolic policies implemented were different. However, the objective remained the same: to adapt the city centre to the taste of the middle classes.
1992–1997: gentrification independent of the political
The city centre, or ‘inner city’, of any of the largest British cities founded on industry is, unlike its Continental equivalent, a space traditionally given over to industry and commerce, with very little housing.18 Settlement in Sheffield's city centre by middle-class ‘pioneers’ goes back to the early 1990s. In this period, the city centre was declining rapidly under the impact of three factors combined: the collapse of the steel and cutlery industries, which led to an increasing number of derelict urban sites in the inner city; the construction of the ‘Supertram’ tramway; and, finally, the opening in 1990 of Meadowhall, a gigantic shopping centre on the outskirts of the city. These phenomena led to rapid retail closures in the late 1980s.
In this difficult context, however, two entrepreneurs were to create the conditions for sustainable settlement by the middle classes in the city centre. The first was the owner of a poster factory in Devonshire Green, a district lying just to the west of the city centre. Having noticed the development of areas of small shops selling clothes or non-mainstream art objects in the neighbouring cities of Leeds and Manchester, in 1992 he converted his factory into ‘The Forum’, a high-quality residential complex that included, on the ground floor, several bars, cafés and small shops offering independent label or ‘vintage’ clothing. The second project was the conversion, in 1994, of a former cutlery workshop in the Cultural Industries Quarter (CIQ) into a high-quality student residence. Nevertheless, in 1993, at the time the plan was put forward, the City Council was very suspicious:
The planners did not originally want people living in there, because they had zoned this area for industry. But all the industries were moving out! But they didn't change it, so we had to fight to get them to allow us to do student accommodation. The planning was only for student accommodation, not residential. Because they didn't think that people would want to live there, only students . . . But that proved to be very successful, that was the catalyst, that started it all (property developer, May 2006).
The City Council was initially reluctant to grant planning permission for residential projects in the city centre because, at the beginning of inner-city redevelopment, its perception was that regeneration could result only from attracting businesses and retailers; therefore, its initial action was to ‘take the city centre in hand’ by excluding undesirable populations.19 On the other hand, expanding the CIQ, created under the leadership of David Blunkett, rather than increasing the supply of residential housing, was perceived as one of the main priorities by the ‘City Centre Manager’ appointed by the Council to regenerate the city centre (see Sheffield Star, 28 September 1993).
However, at that time, Sheffield Hallam University — which, after being under municipal control since its creation, now became autonomous — integrated the CIQ (where its main campus is situated) into its development strategy; a supply of good-quality student housing rapidly became a major resource for the University, necessary to attract students who are able to pay the enrolment fees, which are high in England. It was pressure from Hallam University that first permitted high-quality residential housing intended for students, despite the urban planners' initial desire to privilege expansion of the CIQ's cultural industries: ‘Hallam at that time needed good-quality accommodation to attract new students, so they were keen that it should go ahead’ (property developer, May 2006).
So, in the ensuing years, a large number of flats, essentially intended for a student population, was built in the city centre, fostering the ‘studentification’ observed in other UK cities, which is in the nature of a form of gentrification (Smith, 2002). This posed three main problems for the City Council: the first was connected with the architectural quality of the buildings constructed, notably in the CIQ; the second related to the conflict of space between Hallam and the cultural industries in the CIQ; the third was the onset of NIMBY-type conflicts, with the increasingly numerous residents of the city centre becoming decreasingly tolerant of the noise nuisance resulting from alcohol consumption.20
From 1997: moving towards policy-driven gentrification
Before 1997, the resettlement of Sheffield's city centre seemed like the classic gentrification process observed in other big post-industrial British cities (Tallon and Bromley, 2004), explained as much by the rent-gap thesis as by the tastes of the new middle classes. However, from that year, the City Council began to change its strategy and to adopt a proactive policy aiming to promote the burgeoning settlement of the city centre: so the third dimension of gentrification, that of symbolic policies, was added.
Several factors explain this change in orientation of the city's élites. First of all, the success of the earliest property development projects in the city centre (after the conversion of the Leadmill, the same developer undertook a second, similar project in the CIQ: Truro Works) and in a district near the centre (the conversion of Victoria Quays into luxury apartments) had, according to the promoters, won over the City Council. Second, a new chief executive was appointed in 1997, who viewed the population of the city centre as a resource for the city. There had been a public–private partnership in charge of regenerating Sheffield since 1992 and, in 1998, this was crystallized through the transformation of the Sheffield City Liaison Group into ‘Sheffield First’; this also confirmed the increasing power of both the city's universities, and of Hallam in particular, in the governance of the city. In the same period, the neighbouring cities of Leeds and Manchester, which were particularly closely watched by Sheffield's urban élites, also saw the beginnings of a ‘return to the city’. Finally, and above all, the national context played a major role in Sheffield City Council's change of direction: in 1999, Labour adopted a national policy —Towards an Urban Renaissance — that aimed to promote re-population of the centres of the UK's main agglomerations, in order to combat urban sprawl and kick-start their economies. Loretta Lees (2003) described this as a ‘gentrifiers' charter’ and Rowland Atkinson (2004) saw it as demonstrating that gentrification could be the new regeneration strategy pursued by central government for the declining cities of the North of England.
In the case of Sheffield, however, it should be noted that this turn on the part of the City Council did not initially take the form of a true gentrification policy: having funded a survey of potential city centre residents in 1997, the Council now made do with promoting the development of the residential housing supply to meet a demand that it perceived as coming solely from ‘certain sectors of the population, especially students and other young people’ (Sheffield Star, 30 January 1998). It saw the benefits for the city as being principally the development of its night-time economy, fostered by the ‘24-hour-city’ concept then fashionable in North of England cities. The City Council's initial apparent lack of interest in the quality of the housing built in the city centre at that time is explained by the fact that it was not in a position of strength to impose its own conditions on property developers; a former member of the Planning Department declared that ‘the Council were so desperate because they were not managing to attract inward investments that they said OK to every property scheme they were proposed. That's why the projects that happened at this time were such bad quality’ (former member of Sheffield Planning Department, April 2006). Moreover, attracting property developers was not the only problem: throughout the 1980s and 1990s, in a system of fierce interurban rivalry, Sheffield suffered from the structural problem of being comparatively unattractive and yet completely dependent on external investments. As Colin Crouch and Martin Scott Hill (2004: 196) explain: ‘There has been recognition of the benefits that can be offered to the local economy from small- and medium-sized enterprises . . . On the other hand, capacity to act consistently with these lessons is limited by the sheer and almost desperate need to attract external investment’.
However, the decisive impetus to raise the quality standards of the residential property being built, and so promote gentrification of the city centre, came once again from outside: central government, following the adoption of a new urban strategy, created an Urban Regeneration Company for Sheffield in 2000. Sheffield One's sole responsibility was to regenerate the city centre; it was directed by a public–private partnership headed by the leader of the City Council. From 2001, the agency had a ‘Masterplan’ to regenerate the city centre: this was the culmination of the process of revitalizing the city centre, which ‘topped the policy agenda of the corporatist regime’ (DiGaetano and Lawless, 1999: 571) governing Sheffield from the late 1980s. Before studying the symbolic policies implemented by Sheffield One in order to attract developers and the middle classes, a short description is needed of the intellectual framework that came to unite the actors of Sheffield's gentrification after 2003: the theory of the ‘creative class’.
In an influential work of 2002, Richard Florida pointed to the importance of ‘creative capital’ for urban growth. Although, for him, certain cities and regions possess the necessary characteristics to attract the creative class and so set in motion the virtuous circle of innovation and growth, it is also possible to fabricate a ‘creative community’ completely from scratch, by implementing certain types of urban policies (Florida, 2002: 283), such as policies promoting safety and crime reduction, the quality of the environment and the ‘authenticity’ of place(s) and creating high-quality public spaces (in particular, pedestrian areas) in the city centre — according to Florida, a site valued by the creative class, which rejects life in the suburbs. Florida's work has aroused intense controversy among researchers.21 It involves a radically new vision of local economic development: the labour force no longer follows business, but the reverse; in order to build a successful urban economy, therefore, urban élites must now attract not enterprises, but the creative class. In putting a new population category at the heart of economic growth in this way, and in showing the correct procedure for attracting this category to a place and maintaining it there, Florida's work has disseminated what should really be called a legitimation of gentrification as local economic development policy.
This found a particularly significant echo in Sheffield, where it was initially through the agency of the CIQ that the theory of the ‘creative class’ was imported, since its director had attended a meeting with Florida in Canada. The theory was then rapidly disseminated throughout all Council departments via the chief executive and became a key element in the urban redevelopment strategy, which at the time was oriented towards students and young working people. Thus, the director of one of the city's services wanted to invite Florida to carry out a ‘creative audit’ of Sheffield — but had to give up on the idea because of the fees involved — and the agency that took over from Sheffield One in 2007 was named ‘Creative Sheffield’. As adapted by the local actors, Florida's theory justifies a posteriori the desire to recreate the city centre not only for the creative class, but for the middle classes in general. As the director of the city's investment promotion agency explained it:
If Sheffield wants to be serious as a major city, as we go forward we need a prosperous middle class, much more than just what we've got already . . . We need others to come in as well because we need more of an entrepreneurial city, and we need to internationalize the city more. It's quite a provincial city. It's a very friendly city, but if you look at other Northern cities — Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool — they have much more of an international feel than Sheffield. And I think that brings benefits . . . It's really about graduates. It's getting people who have studied in the city to get a decent job and have their home in the city centre (Chief Executive of Sheffield First for Investment, June 2006).
Sheffield One's symbolic policies: re-imaging the city centre for the middle classes
In order to regenerate the city centre, Sheffield One attempted to change its image, notably by promoting the opening of cafés and the creation of pedestrian areas and by continuing the ‘Heart of the City’ project, which had been launched in 1994 and aimed to recreate an easily identifiable ‘heart’ in the city centre by attracting private investment in the wake of public investment intended to increase land values (a high-quality landscaped public garden, the Peace Garden; an art gallery; a Winter Garden). One of Sheffield One's main tasks was to bring retailing back to the city centre, which had been severely affected by the opening of Meadowhall Shopping Centre in 1990. But not all shops were equally sought-after: the city centre was to be distinguished from the neighbouring shopping centre by exploiting the quality of the public space on offer, in order to appeal to a new consumer:
The New Retail Quarter is part of the city, it is high-quality, designed by different world-class architects; it is aiming at the top end of the spend profile, and you can shop in a very high-quality environment . . . Because if we are to compete with Meadowhall, then we have to differentiate ourselves from them. Meadowhall and the city centre can be complementary; Meadowhall can't attract the wealthy younger shoppers nor the wealthy older shoppers . . . They are shopping in Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham. So there is a deliberate push to make the offer very attractive to these sorts of people (Chief Executive of Sheffield One, June 2006).
Sheffield One's entrepreneurialism led to a significant increase in the quality of housing built from 2000 onwards, with developers perceiving a very strong social demand for loft apartments. The Council's desire to attract well-off populations is attested by the fact that the central government directive to build 20% of social housing has not been observed: the City Council's official position is that ‘it is currently considered, that there is more than sufficient accommodation in close proximity to the City Centre to meet the needs for affordable housing’ (Sheffield City Council, 2004). There is a strong consensus between the main actors of governance in Sheffield: the two universities, whose influence within the public–private partnership that governs the city has increased over recent years, see the regeneration of the city centre as an important asset in the UK context of highly developed inter-university competition.
Very few protests have arisen against the desire to reconstruct a city centre to the taste of the middle classes. The conflict between some SMEs in the CIQ over Hallam University's strategy of concentrating its development — notably its student residences — in this district has gradually been resolved, giving way to project-based collaboration between CIQ businesses and the universities. The principal site of opposition to Hallam University's strategy was a group of artists, activists and cultural associations, known as ‘Matilda Activists’; this was broken up following its eviction from its building by the Regional Development Agency, ‘Yorkshire Forward’, in June 2006. This might lead one to suspect the coming of a ‘revanchist’22 city centre to Sheffield; yet Sheffield city centre seems to be more the rational creation of a space intended to respond to the supposed values of the middle classes — including the secessionist tendency — than a reaction to threats.
However, an independent city councillor destroyed the consensus by leading a campaign for the construction of social housing in the city centre, declaring among other things:
I'm not against private developments and people returning back to the city centre, but I believe in social housing. I'm concerned it's becoming just for yuppies. I don't want the city centre to be a student or yuppie area; I was led to believe there was going to be a mix of people (quoted in Sheffield Star, 26 November 2003).
In the light of the city's recent history, the adoption of this new strategy clearly shows the path taken by the Labour Party in Sheffield, from the rise of the New Urban Left up to the present day. In 1986, the City Council was initially opposed to the Urban Development Corporation imposed by Margaret Thatcher's government and charged with regenerating the North-Eastern area of the city after the industrial crisis; yet the consensus within the City Council when Sheffield One was created reveals a shift in the concept of urban regeneration on the part of the Labour Party, at both national and local levels. Admittedly, the new agency was chaired by the leader of the City Council, unlike the Sheffield Development Corporation, which was chaired by a representative of the private sector. Yet, in both cases, the method for achieving local recovery was identical: injecting public funds into urban projects in order to attract private investors to take charge of boosting the city centre economy. As the leader of the Council pointed out:
We need private sector investments for jobs for the city. We want good-quality jobs. In the first office block that was built just by the Peace Garden, there is a company of international lawyers. But, of course, with the high-quality jobs come a whole series of service jobs. So for the people who are not highly qualified, there is the security, the catering, the cleaning and the other jobs (Leader of Sheffield City Council, June 2006).
This concept of regeneration is the spatial version of the neoliberal economic theory of the ‘trickledown effect’: by promoting the concentration of capital in the highest strata of the social hierarchy, it is presumed that, in the end, limiting taxation will benefit disadvantaged populations as the consequent job creation allows wealth to spread or ‘trickle’ downwards. In the case of the regeneration of Sheffield city centre, it is the concentration of wealth in a restricted geographical space that must enable prosperity to ‘trickle’ down — and then out to the neighbouring districts.