Sheffield Central Library: Whither civic pride?

Blog post by Mick Nott, an active trustee with Sheffield Civic Trust.  Mick writes here in a personal capacity, but the Sheffield Civic Trust are also looking to gather views and responses on the Sheffield Central Library proposals, so please get in touch.

Sheffield Central Library: What was decided?

  • In November 2016 Sheffield City Council’s (SCC) Cabinet committee gave the Sichuon Goudong Construction Company (SGCC) 12 months exclusivity to determine if it was feasible to convert the Sheffield Central Library (SCL) building into a 5 star hotel and Art Gallery.

  • Sheffield Central Library houses the main library, the local studies centre, the Graves Art Gallery, and a theatre (available for all to hire from SCC).

What was the decision?

  • The decision is that the SGCC will have 12 months, until November 2017, exclusivity to develop proposals and plans to develop SCL as a 5* hotel and Art Gallery.

  • Cabinet councillors state that the SCL is no longer fit for purpose in the 21st century.  It is:

    • expensive to repair and maintain to essential health and safety standards(£500k in the last 3 years, £2.2m over the next 3 years);

    • in need of substantial funds (£30m) to refurbish as it stands to bring it up to standards of service, access, particularly disabled access, and structure for a C21st library service.(All figures given by councillors at recent meetings).

What else was decided?

  • It was decided that at the end of 12 months neither party would be obliged to agree to continue with the possible development.

  • The SCL would not be sold in any case; it would be leased. The nature of any possible lease, e.g. length, repairs etc, has not been decided.

  • SCC has accepted the SGCC proposal that the Art Gallery should remain within the building and could be moved to a lower & more accessible floor if the development takes place.

What was not decided?

  • No possible site has yet been identified for a new central library.

  • There are possible funding sources for a new library but these have not been definitely identified yet.

  • A new library would not be PFI funded.

  • A replacement for the SCC-owned and managed Library Theatre cannot be guaranteed.

What is promised?

  • If this development were to go ahead then SCC would build a new central library fit for purpose and perhaps reuniting the library, local studies, and archives together.

  • The new central library would be no more than ½ mile from the location of the current SCL.

  • There will be no discontinuity in central library services

What is the background to these decisions?

  • In July 2016 SGCC and SCC signed an agreement to cooperate in the development of the city of Sheffield.  SGCC has promised to contribute £220m over the next 3 years to develop projects in the city centre and a total of £1bn over the next 60 years.  This agreement had been negotiated for 18 months, that is, since Jan 2015.

  • Central government has progressively and severely reduced central grants to Local Authorities.  There will be no central government funds granted to local authorities from April 2020.  From April 2020 Sheffield, like all local authorities, will be funded solely from its business rates, council taxes and any revenue they can raise from assets and services.

  • Councillors have stated that a development like this could provide an income of £1m pa in business rates.

What was the reaction?

  • This news was broadcast in the local media and there has been a significant public reaction.

  • A public petition to keep the library as a library has been signed by over 10,000 people. A facebook group has been set up too.

  • Councillors have noted the public size and strength of response and have held a series of four public meetings (nb the same presentation four times) so far to explain and respond to public questions and statements from members of the public.

  • The two councillors who made the presentations have also contacted individuals who left questions at the end of the meetings.  The councillors say they want the process to be transparent and are eager to talk to individuals concerned.

Why do I think Sheffield Civic Trust (SCT) should care?

  • Sheffield Civic Trust is not only concerned with individual developments or particular buildings it is also concerned with: the structure, appearance and feel of the city; how people can move around the city; what the city provides culturally, administratively, commercially, and residentially for its own citizens and visitors.  A place where people like to play, shop, work and live!

  • SCL is a key part of the cultural life of the city and sits at present in the heart of the city.  The last grand development to be realised in the city was the Heart of the City project.  This includes, Sheaf Square, Howard St, Millennium Galleries, Winter Garden, Peace Gardens, St Paul’s including Millennium Square, Tudor Square, Barkers Pool and the surrounds and work was also done on the City Hall.  But SCL seems not to have received the same civic attention that perhaps it deserves or deserved.

  • The current SCL is located within the Heart of the City.  It is next to Tudor Square and its main access is from Surrey Street which is part of the Gold Route – a route planned through the city from the railway station to the University of Sheffield that provides good access for all pedestrians and cyclists to every part of Heart of the City.

  • Sheffield is one of the ten core UK cities and it should be a matter of civic pride that what the city provides as its civic offer satisfies its citizens, attracts visitors and can be evaluated to match the other core cities.  The SCL is part of this offer with the library (including the archives), the Graves Art Gallery and the Library Theatre.  To be considered a core city then I think Sheffield needs to provide a national if not international standard of library services. It should have a national quality art gallery and it should provide a theatre that is accessible for the use of amateur as well as professional groups.  Sheffield doesn’t have a 5* hotel.

  • There have been significant changes since the planning and funding of the Heart of City.  There has been the universal economic crash.  We now live in an age of austerity.  In England national policies have successively cut central funds and will eventually stop giving any funds to local authorities.  We will not receive any EU funds.  Local authorities will still have duties and obligations set by central government and the levels or increases of business rates and council taxes will also be determined by central government.  Local Authorities will become managers of central government policy.  The only discretionary funds they will have will be what surplus they can raise once they have fulfilled their obligatory duties.  Other funds will also be available from developers whether they are public companies or  private companies or individual philanthropists.

  • There have also been changes in planning regulations.  It is much easier for developers to build what they want and much harder for local authorities to challenge what developers want.  Regional economic and transport policies are much more likely to be determined by enterprise zones, which are dominated by unelected business members, and nascent city regions whose political configurations and democratic voice and responsiveness are unclear.  Housing policy is centrally determined and local authorities have to sell assets like council houses.

  • The prospect of a local authority being able to plan future developments that are coherent and consistent with previous developments, and for the public good of all, seems to have slipped away.  I need to find out more but it could be that this process may have already started in Sheffield with the development of the New Retail Quarter and the siting of the HS2 station.

And I think this brings me back to July 2016 when SCC signed an agreement with SGCC about investing in developing Sheffield.  The nature of this agreement is not clear.  It could be that SGCC is a preferred bidder.  In response to questions about whether other bids had been received or sought with respect to developing the SCL, the councillors said no other developer had come forward with any proposals.  I think SCC have a duty to realise the best value or return from its assets that it can:

  • if SGCC come back in a year with a plan that says its proposals are feasible and a projection of a sum of money that these plans could produce then, in the absence of any alternatives, how will councillors be able to evaluate that other better returns could be realised?

They won’t be able to: I’ve asked.

And SGCC has paid no money upfront for exclusivity – other than I presume any monies offered or promised in the agreement signed in July 2016.  So none of us will know if the best deal possible.

My understanding of free market theory is that a free market will determine the best price.  If there isn’t a market you can or ought to create one.  SCC could have done this by publicly tendering or offering the possibility of developing SCL to any developer interested and if it got at least more than one offer it would be able, after due diligence, to evaluate which proposal was better value for its revenue and its citizens.  It’s unclear to me whether SGCC now has some form of monopoly on how Sheffield develops.

Councillors have declared that they want the process about the development of SCL to be open and transparent with the citizens of Sheffield.  How open can SCC be when they are collaborating with SGCC, a private company, that would probably want or see a need to maintain commercial confidentiality?  We could have a city where exclusivity and secrecy may not be working but competing with democracy and transparency.

Private companies’ developments are not necessarily bad or wrong.  They also may want to build for the public good, and often they want to maintain a good public image.  Councillors are not malevolent.  It is a thankless task because they take the blame when and if things go wrong.  Councillors’ ability to make a pro-active contribution to civic life is limited by central government edicts and starvation of funds.  However SCT needs to recognise that the city’s future development may be dominated, if not monopolised, by private capital with little democratic input.

As a civic trust then SCT should work on developing a view or manifesto for the spaces, transport, buildings and services that Sheffield should have and deserves to have as a UK core city.  A manifesto would provide the guidance for SCT to monitor, evaluate, advise and make representations about the development and preservation of the city.  Let’s be part of determining and building civic pride!

Mick Nott, January 2017

Posted in Uncategorized
6 comments on “Sheffield Central Library: Whither civic pride?
  1. Keith Crawshaw says:

    Brilliant summary of the position and the real dilemmas facing the Council. As I said in my letter to the Sheffield Telegraph when the story broke I do not take a position of opposing a look at options, what I am more concerned about is that the library service is at the forefront of the City Council’s thoughts and whether it moves or stays we end up with a building and service that provide a sense of civic pride and commensurate with our position as a major city. Any move that results in a service operating out of a steel box with cladding which might last 30 years does not do it for me.

    • Mick Nott says:

      Thanks Keith.
      I wanted to set the scene, many people are concerned but my not understand the background of funding etc
      I am also concerned that we have an agreement between SCC and SGCC that is secret: commercial confidentiality. There is a democratic deficit. There may be no coherence to the development of the city as developers just do what they want and any consultation is PR but not about people’s choices or needs.
      At the first public meeting Jack Scott said that the developer had approached SCC with this proposal in Oct 2016.
      At the 4th meeting it was stated as July 2016. The latter date may be an error but the agreement was signed in July 2016. Hmmm?

  2. Nick says:

    You rightly identify the shrinking resource envelope that the council operate with , its even worse though as the council has statutory responsibility for vulnerable groups including the elderly and young people and demand is rising with shrinking revenue .
    If the Library has to be refurbished out of the councils money which services will be cut further to support this or will Sheffield Citizens vote in a local referendum to allow the Council to raise Council Tax beyond the Governments limit .

    • Mick Nott says:

      Thanks Nick
      Yes it is about choices. It is already apparent. The LAs inability to pay for or manage social care in “good time” mean that hospitals cannot discharge people and that is one of the causes already.
      The situation by 2020 will be desperate especially if austerity continues and national funding decisions and tax policy stay as they are.
      And even if Sheffield tried to increase council tax then this is a regressive tax and Sheffield is overall a ‘poor’ city. Average household income is low for a core city and many people are in the ‘precariat’.

  3. Mike Pye says:

    It is an excellent summary of the position that the Council finds itself in. After talking to the senior councillors involved I have no doubt that they wish to provide a library service fit for purpose in the city centre I am also sure that they will seriously consider the prospects of having the Library Theatre replaced although I should remind people that what is now the library theatre was originally intended to just be a lecture room and in fact was that until the early 1950s.

  4. Linda says:

    Interesting views. I personally feel very strongly that one way or another the council should let the old Central Library go. Even putting the cutbacks aside, there seems little point in trying to prop up a crumbling concrete 1930’s building which for many years has not been fit for purpose. The only wheelchair access to the library is via a goods lift. There is no wheelchair access at all to the library’s lecture theatre. To have the Local Studies and the City Archives on two separate sites with different opening times is a nonsense. The dreariness of the run down library ‘theatre’ lecture hall is surpassed only by the dingy children’s library tucked away in the basement. Let’s hope that common sense will prevail and that an alternative site will be found for a central library which everyone can enjoy and which Sheffield can be proud of.

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