Sheffield Central Library: Whither civic pride in Feb 2017?

Mick Nott February 2017

Mick is an active trustee with Sheffield Civic Trust.  He writes in a personal capacity.

Hi, it is now just over 2 months since SCC agreed to grant 12 months exclusivity to an investor to conduct a feasibility study about converting the Sheffield Central Library building into a 5* hotel.  I wrote a blog post that was published a month ago, see - http://sheffieldcivictrust.org.uk/sheffield-central-library-civic-pride/

This post is an update containing what more has happened, what more I know and I advise on what I think campaigners could do if they want to slow down this possible development.

Comments are welcome and if I will respond – but maybe not immediately!

What has happened?

In the previous post I didn’t note that SCC’s Economic and Environmental Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee had discussed the exclusivity decision on 15 December 2016.  The discussion was lengthy and Cabinet councillors and SCC officers attended to answer queries.  The minutes are here: http://democracy.sheffield.gov.uk/documents/g6571/Printed%20minutes%20Thursday%2015-Dec-2016%2014.30%20Economic%20and%20Environmental%20Wellbeing%20Scrutiny%20and%20Polic.pdf?T=1

Many members of the public raised questions and concerns as well as the councillors on the committee, e.g. what are or would be:

  • the pros and cons of renovation/refurbishment of current building v leasing for development;
  • the plans for continuity and development of central library services in any case;
  • the particulars and nature of the agreement of the company with which SCC have signed the exclusivity agreement.

The answers are more detailed but similar to the ones that had been given in the public meetings after the exclusivity decision was made on 30 November 2016.

The Scrutiny Committee is important because it can call-in Cabinet decisions for review and there were two call-ins at the December 2016  meeting, one on the plans and one on the nature of the agreement.

  • A Scrutiny Committee can refer a decision back to Cabinet for reconsideration and is, in my view (other than direct action!), the sole way that Cabinet can be politically made accountable.
  • The Scrutiny Committee agreed to discuss the plans and decisions about SCL at the Scrutiny Committee meeting on 26 April 2017 (first meeting of FY17/18).

Cllrs, officers, library staff and campaigners went a tour of Liverpool Library.

  • Liverpool have recently renovated their library and been rewarded with an increase in visitor numbers and the library is next to a museum and an art gallery.
  • It was remarked that the developer had already mentioned that he may need to add more floors and/or an annex to the SCL building to convert it to a 5* hotel.

A meeting of concerned citizens, cllrs, officers, buildings and library staff was organised by cllrs and held at the Library.  The meeting consisted of a tour of the building and a discussion with staff, and then staff and cllrs.

  • The tour confirmed that the building is in a poor state and needs major works (subject of another blog) but we knew that already.

The library staff present stated that:

  • access for people with disabilities was inadequate for the C21st and the library theatre is not compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and would be very difficult to make so within the envelope of the current building;
  • was dilapidated and could be uncomfortable for staff (damp, temperature etc) to work in
  • the 1930s physical structure hindered flexibility of staffing, eg multi-tasking on requests, and updating IT and number of computer terminals for a C21st library service;
  • a library shd have performance space (but not necessarily a formal theatre space);
  • it is desirable to bring back archives for staffing and access within the same space as loans, reference, local studies and children’s;
  • a relocation to within the retail quarter may not be inappropriate.

Concerned citizens asked:

  • how could the developer guarantee a 5* hotel as these we were awarded by independent inspection and 5* classification was earned not built to order?
  • if the building were to be gutted (which the possible development would do anyway) and then could it be reconfigured with and extended as in extensive plans and costings drawn up for SCC in 2003 ((1) (which had addressed the DDA and expanding the space available)), and the feasibility study, again for SCC, of 2013?
  • as the Sheffield Cultural Commission had identified the library and art gallery as important buildings and cultural, tourist destinations (Surrey St Central project) in 2015 and 2016 then why had SCC not met up with ARUP as planned?

Jack Scott said he would look into these issues.

Following the money

One of the grounds that the Scrutiny Committee (see above) called-in the Cabinet decision to scrutinise the “…Strategic Investment Partnership Agreement with Guodong and the 12-month Exclusivity Agreement on the potential redevelopment of the Central Library building”.

I was confused in December about who SCC have struck a deal with.  SCC have signed the  agreement concerning the library with Guodong UK Limited (Guodong).  This is a  is a private company first filed with Companies House on 9 May 2016.  The Director and sole shareholder of the initial 100 shares with a capital value of £100 is Chunming Wang and its secretary is Liu Yuan (his son-in-law).  It has to file its first accounts by 31 May 2018.

  • Mr Wang owns the private company Chengdu Guodong Nanyuan Investment Co. Ltd. (CGNICLtd) that has its main interests in hotel management.
  • This company is a subsidiary of the Sichuan Guodong Construction Company Group Ltd (SGCCGLtd) which is a private company also owned by Mr Wang.
  • The Sichuan Guodong Construction Company Group Ltd (SGCCGLtd) holds shares in the Sichuan Guodong Construction Company Ltd (SGCCLtd).  This  is a publicly quoted company on the Shanghai Stock Exchange and Chunming Wang is Chairman of the Board.
  • I have heard that Guodong UK Ltd needed to be created so that Mr Wang has a company to which he can transfer money from his companies in China to a UK company.
  • I think people would like more detail about what SCC has agreed with whom and when and in my view that is a job of the Scrutiny Committee.

I have put a bit more detail into this document https://docs.google.com/document/d/1NNmzBH_b0v7SF415MulCJNcLeWj8H23yF4Zx21OG8h4/edit?usp=sharing.  When SCC originally announced the agreement to work together with Mr Wang and his companies the BBC quickly followed up with an interview with Mr Wang in July 2016, see https://youtu.be/efVysmaQpC0.  At the time Mr Wang said he saw the need for a 5* hotel in Sheffield.

What do people want?

  • Cllrs want to “keep the wheels on the wagon” and if the prospect is to raise all SCC’s funds from 2020, when central government grants will cease, through business rates, council tax and services then any investment will look attractive.

  • People need and want a C21st library service in the centre of the city close to public transport and with DDA-compliant access.

  • People need and want a DDA-compliant auditorium that can be used by amateur and professional companies to stage productions at affordable rents.

  • People need and want a DDA-compliant public art gallery accessible at all times (nb the Graves Gallery is currently not open on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesday mornings and Bank Holidays.  No other core city closes its main galleries for two whole consecutive days and times when people are on public holidays)

  • The library building is listed and was envisaged from the 1990s within the award-winning Heart of the City project as an integral part of the public, civic buildings and spaces that includes the route (2) from the railway station to Barkers Pool and includes, Sheaf Square, Howard St, Millenium Galleries, Surrey St/Tudor Square, Central Library, Crucible, Lyceum, Winter Gardens, Peace Gardens, Barkers Pool and City Hall.  In my mind (and I know it has some faults) this is an inspired example of city centre design that provides a pleasant, attractive and integrated set of buildings and spaces for people walk around, visit and enjoy at their leisure.

  • People need to be re-assured that in any case that there will be no break or discontinuity in central library services and that there will be library services in the city centre close to public transport.

What can be done?

My view is that this process feels very unclear and rushed with no clear plans or alternatives to Mr Wang’s wants being offered for people, citizens and councillors, to consider or discuss.  The first stage to slow the process down and make the Cabinet accountable would be through the Economic and Environmental Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee meeting on 26 April 2017.  The political strategies would be

  • lobby this meeting through an e-petition on SCC website (3)

  • ask the chair of the committee to be allowed to attend the meeting and present a case for referring the decision back (4)

  • lobby members of the committee.  Any citizen can ask a councillor, who represents their ward and sits on the Scrutiny Committee, questions to raise wrt particular items on the Scrutiny Committee’s agenda.

  • any citizen can ask a question of the committee. You can write to your councillor or see them at one of their surgeries (5)

 (1). SCC commissioned a firm of architects to propose possible alternatives for SCL.  These were produced for SCC in 2003 (and can be seen as part of completing Heart of the City).  We have seen copies of these six proposals for the current building (and an additional proposal on a new, unspecified site) and believe the six proposals for the current SCL:

  1. contained detail of renovating and updating the building’s interior and access (to make it DDA compliant);

  2. they have (2003) costings but more detail is requ’d;

  3. there is aesthetic and functional merit in each proposal but obviously all would need proper planning scrutiny.

(2). This is the Gold Route and actually finishes at the University of Sheffield.  The current works at the University will be the end of the route.

(3). “Petitions with 2,500 or more signatures can require a senior officer to give evidence at a Scrutiny Committee. Petitions with 5,000 or more signatures will trigger a public debate by Full Council. We require 7 working days’ notice prior to a Council meeting for a public debate at Full Council to ensure that members have adequate time to prepare for the debate.”

(4). In the case of Scrutiny Committees, this can also involve evidence from people and organisations outside of the Council and it can sometimes take several meetings before the Scrutiny Committee reaches its conclusions and makes any recommendations to the Cabinet or Council.

(5). You have to give 24h notice of the question and attend the meeting to ask the question. See https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/your-city-council/have-your-say.html and follow the links!

 Economic and Environmental Wellbeing Scrutiny Cttee

The Committee members list is here http://democracy.sheffield.gov.uk/mgCommitteeDetails.aspx?ID=136

Click on the link and you get the cllr’s profile, surgery hours and contact details.

Contacting cllrs by email ensures you have a record of your query: date, time and content.

Each member has a substitute member from their ward.

Member

Party

Ward

Councillor Steve Wilson  (Chair)

Lab

East Ecclesfield

Councillor Ian Auckland  (Deputy Chair)

LibDem

Graves Park

Councillor Penny Baker

LibDem

Stannington

Councillor Lisa Banes

Lab

Manor Castle

Councillor Neale Gibson

Lab

Walkley

Councillor Dianne Hurst

Lab

Richmond

Councillor Talib Hussain

Lab

Burngreave

Councillor Abdul Khayum

Lab

Firth Park

Councillor Helen Mirfin-Boukouris

Lab

Beighton

Councillor Ben Miskell

Lab

Park & Arbourthorne

Councillor Robert Murphy

Green

City

Councillor Andy Nash

LibDem

Beauchief & Greenhill

Councillor Chris Peace

Lab

Gleadless Valley

Councillor Martin Smith

LibDem

Dore & Totley

Councillor Paul Wood

Lab

Woodhouse

 

 

Posted in City centre