Off the shelf: urban choices and Sheffield Ikea

When I came to live in Sheffield I brought several boxes of books and records, a sack or two of clothes, and a giddy sense of exhilaration. I’d been visiting regularly for five years and grown fond of its affable locals; its unique, striking landscape, at once both urban and semi-rural; its lovely unspoilt pubs; the independent shops of its easy-going, low-rise city centre; and the ramshackle openness and enthusiasm of its music scene.

I loved the way Sheffield didn’t try too hard. I loved the way economically unproductive urban land could stand unmolested and relax. I loved the secret garden halfway up a long stone staircase off the Chesterfield Road; the tiny grade II listed cottage by the River Sheaf among warehouses, a martial arts centre and a paint factory. While other cities set on rebranding themselves as major European conferencing centres or world-class shopping destinations, Sheffield seemed content just to be what it was. I loved it for this easy-going brownfield sufficiency.

After the Sheffield Telegraph ran a piece I wrote about this, I was naively surprised to find that these enthusiasms were not shared unanimously by the half-million or so people who were living here before I arrived. Some of the responses on the paper’s letters page and the popular Sheffield Forum website were in agreement. But many were not.

The city centre was said to be “dead”, killed off during the 1990s by an exodus of shoppers to the Meadowhall retail complex three miles away. Sheffield, people said, needed to do whatever was necessary to emulate Manchester and Leeds. These were successful cities, which had attracted prestigious retail brands. Two particularly sore points were the presence of Harvey Nichols in Leeds and the absence of Ikea from Sheffield.

The local authority copped the blame for most of this. One councillor caused outrage by observing that “Sheffield women don’t want posh frocks”. This was clearly nonsense (I know at least two Sheffield women who do). But it was interesting that a perception of its distinctiveness had permeated the city so far that it could be voiced by public officials, albeit in a skew-whiff sort of form.

Babies and bathwater

To some extent I could accept the argument that Sheffield was punching below its weight economically, with implications for the financial well-being of its people. I could not, however, buy into the notion that having small shops instead of big shops was a serious impediment to our quality of life. I’d just relocated from Birmingham, a city which had thrown out its grimy bathwater and with it the baby, trading in its soul for a regeneration of deathly corporate dreariness. I was horrified by the idea that my new home should address this non-issue by relinquishing the offbeat grassroots charm that made it unique.

This was back in 2004. Ten years later, councillors finally approved Ikea’s application to build a store in the Tinsley area of Sheffield. They ignored warnings about the resultant effects of traffic and air pollution from a local residents’ group and the city’s own director of public health, Dr Jeremy Wight, who told the planning meeting:

 “The exacerbation of poor air quality will undoubtedly cause more illness and very probably a small number of premature deaths. The adverse consequences are very unlikely to be outweighed by improvement in employment prospects and improvement in the economy.”

Or to paraphrase, you can have your nice furniture but it means people will die early.

Sheffield has essentially decided that a few more early deaths are a price worth paying to have a few more nice things – and become a little more like Leeds and Manchester. Perhaps most significantly of all, the group of people driving away with pretty furniture is not the same as the group of people wheezing to a premature grave. At the same time, another group of people – around 400, to put a number on it – will have new jobs when those doors open.

The unspoken questions

These are among the issues examined by my long poem Sheffield Almanac (published earlier this year as a 36-page pamphlet by Longbarrow Press). Here are a few lines from the second chapter.

When the smoke clears, it’s a trade-off,
A Machiavellian pact we strike with the city

And these are the metropolitan clauses
Inserted by the Prince’s legal committee:

That we’ll accept a respiration peppered with
Monoxide specks in exchange for our distractions:

The multiplex, the multi-storey, coffee shops,
Casinos, concert halls — these transactions

List their price as tainted air. Read the small print:
Life itself is shortened…

The shop doors open this week. Clever marketers have upholstered the seats of a tram in one of Ikea’s floral patterns. Outside Sheffield’s railway station there’s a bird of prey made of allen keys. A large illuminated slogan has appeared in a central public park. As well as raising pertinent questions about public space and ‘implied consent’, this campaign ensures that the surrounding roads will be clogged with traffic and Tinsley’s already toxic air grow more lethal still.

The unspoken questions behind Sheffield Ikea underlie every major public planning decision. Is a more affluent but generic city better than a poorer, more distinctive one? Is a longer, quieter life worth more than a shorter, busier one? Who decides? To what extent does retail constitute fulfilment or distraction? In a city of thousands or a world of billions, in an economic system where most people still need jobs, is there any way to balance the conflicting sets of criteria by which quality of life is reckoned – concerning clean air, steady employment, or consumer choice?

And look again at Dr Wight’s statement. In the case of Sheffield Ikea, he said, the damage to public health was “very unlikely to be outweighed” by the jobs and GDP. But his admission that the harm might ever be outweighed lets the cat out of the bag. Decisions like this always rest on a tacit assumption that the illness and death wrought by air pollution become acceptable at some point if the economic benefits are great enough.

How great must those benefits be to justify the harm? Two hundred more jobs? A couple of dozen? For councillor Jayne Dunn, when the local authority gave Ikea the go-ahead, the answer was zero: that point had already been reached. “In this climate people need jobs,” she said, “and that’s what I’ll be proud of when I drive in to Sheffield and see this store.”

I neither offer straightforward answers nor suggest that any exist. But I’m surprised that the questions are hardly ever asked out loud. I don’t position myself outside the circle of complicity. But I reserve the right to a moment or two of small sadness as Sheffield becomes just a little less like itself and a little more like everywhere else.

Sheffield Almanac coverOrder a copy of Sheffield Almanac now from the Longbarrow Press website


Read ‘Model City’, my essay for the Longbarrow blog about Sheffield’s post-industrial identity and reinvention as a ‘City of Makers’

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