Could Sheffield City Council go bankrupt like Birmingham?
Plus, a new pub at Park Hill
Good afternoon readers — and welcome to our Monday briefing.
When austerity began in 2010, it was originally meant to be a ‘short sharp shock’. But 13 years later, there is still no end in sight to local government funding cuts. When Birmingham City Council, the largest local authority in Europe, announced it had effectively gone bankrupt last week, it shocked many in the country. But could Sheffield City Council soon be in danger too?
As well as that, we have a stunning photo of the new pub at Park Hill, a worrying YouTube video about a city neighbourhood, and Sheffield’s Heritage Open Days festival continues all week.
Catch up and coming up
Our weekend read by Sheffield novelist Rachel Genn was a literary meditation on memory and sweaty dancefloors. You can still read that piece here and long-time Tribune member Loz Harvey has even created a Spotify playlist to go with the story. Many thanks Loz 🙏
Last week we sent out two great newsletters to our 1,580 paying members. In the first, Dan travelled to the Longshaw Sheepdog Trials to ask if the 125 year old event had a long-term future. And in the second we interviewed Wicker Riverside resident Jenni Garratt, a victim of the UK cladding scandal who has lost more than £15,000 since the saga began. An extract from that first piece is below.
When David Bocking did a story about the trials in 2015, he said that around 1,000 attended. But in the trials’ heyday they used to be a seriously big draw. Back then, coaches used to be put to ferry up to 12,000 people from Sheffield and organisers used to put hessian screens up by the road to stop people stealing a view of the competition. Now, the fell face is used as a way of boosting numbers and there is also a Spitfire flypast to attract a few more. While it makes sense for the event to diversify, it’s clear that the event is struggling to attract the levels of interest it used to. It all begs the questions of just how long it can keep going.
This week we’ll send out two more including one about how Park Hill flats’ new bar The Pearl compares to the building’s historic boozers. To help fund a new way of doing journalism in Sheffield based on subscriptions rather than clickbait, please consider subscribing using the button below. It costs £1.34 a week if you pay for 12 months up front (23p a day).
Editor’s note: I can’t begin to tell you how great it is, after two years of doing The Tribune largely on my own, to have colleagues and a place to go to work! Victoria Munro joining has hugely improved our output and people really love Daniel Timms’ meticulously-researched data pieces as well. All being together at Union Street in the city centre makes us really feel like a team and that’s all down to you. And the more people join as members, the better we’ll get. Please join today 🙏
The big picture: Park Hill piazza 🍻
The Pearl, Park Hill’s new pub, picked a great weekend to open. The bar, which is from the same team who run Bench in Nether Edge, was busy all weekend as residents and visitors enjoyed the trendy new venue. And it also has a beer garden that offers great views of the city’s skyline. Dan went for the first time last night and members can expect a piece about the new bar and the more traditional boozers which preceded in in tomorrow’s Tribune.
This week’s weather 🌦
Our weather forecast comes from dedicated Sheffield weather service Steel City Skies, who say the heat and humidity will give way to fresher but more changeable conditions with temperatures returning closer to average.
Monday 🌦 Still rather warm, with a bright morning giving way to a more mixed and showery afternoon, some heavy and thundery. Highs of 24°C.
Tuesday ☔️ A cold front clears the air, so it'll feel somewhat fresher. That being said, cloud and patchy rain will dominate with highs of 17°C.
Wednesday ⛅ An area of high pressure takes a passing interest, with a drier and brighter day favoured with light winds. Highs of 18°C.
Thursday ☁️ Milder and breezier from the southwest with the risk of frontal rain, though it may hold off to the west. Rather cloudy with highs of 19°C.
Friday 🌦 Fronts eventually making progress east, with patchy rain breaking up to showers. Breezy from the west with highs of 18°C.
Outlook: A few showers for a bright Saturday, with an area of high pressure nosing in across southern areas for Sunday, so likely drier as the weekend progresses. Mild.
The big story: Could Sheffield City Council go bankrupt like Birmingham?
Top line: Last week, Birmingham City Council was forced to declare itself bankrupt, issuing a section 114 notice after admitting it was unable to balance its books. Chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, Jonathan Carr-West told the Guardian that Birmingham is the biggest council to fail so far — following Woking, Croydon and Thurrock — “but unless something changes, it won’t be the last”. Could Sheffield’s public purse be in danger too?
Mind the gap: Sheffield Council currently predicts it will have gone £17.6m over budget by the end of this financial year. A report prepared for a meeting of the council’s finance committee today states that, under “mid-case assumptions”, its budget gap will have grown to £61m in four years. In the “worst case” scenario, the black hole in the council’s finances could grow as large as £149m. By comparison, Birmingham Council’s budget gap for this year was just £87m.
Pinching pennies: To avoid financial ruin, Sheffield City Council needs to cut its spending but, in the words of finance committee chair Cllr Zahira Naz, “there are no easy decisions left to take”. This year’s budget report noted Sheffield has already cut £475m over the last 13 years, meaning further savings are “increasingly difficult to deliver without wholesale closures of service on which Sheffield residents rely”. Balancing this year’s budget required shaving £47.7m off the annual spend and already about £10m of those savings have proven “undeliverable”, while balancing next year’s budget will require the council to find an extra £82m.
Most expensive services: The services which caused Sheffield City Council to overspend the most are, unfortunately, also its most vital. “We can’t forget that following a damaging pandemic, we’re still stuck in the national cost of living crisis,” Cllr Naz said, adding that the council “will continue to focus on supporting those who need it most”. While the cost of doing so is immense, it could be far worse. Of England’s eight major cities, Sheffield is deemed the second-least deprived overall, although it also has the fifth highest gross expenditure, largely due to the size of its population.
This year the department in charge of education, children and families is expected to overspend by £8.9m. More than half of this overspend is due to the cost of “external residential placements”, supporting children who cannot live at home. The average placement is £5,400 a week and, for “the most complex children” who have suffered the most, it “can cost a great deal more”.
The service housing homeless residents expects to overspend by £8.4m this year. The report to the finance committee points out that the government “does not fully subsidise all housing benefit payments made by the council even though it sets the rules that determine the amount the council has to pay,” which leaves Sheffield “essentially bridging the gap”.
Fair funding: In the budget report for this year, the council noted that the amount of money it has available to spend per Sheffield household has fallen by £856 — or by close to a third — since 2010. If the council hadn’t increased council tax over the years, the reduction in its spending power per household would be closer to 50%. Cllr Naz said Sheffield Council “has been vocal” about the need for more support from the government and will continue to urge it to “step up and provide fairer funding”.
What Sheffield and other councils across England are crossing their fingers for is the long-awaited Fair Funding review, although this is now unlikely to happen before 2026. The review will update the formula that decides how much government funding each council receives, which has been unchanged for a decade. When it is updated, Sheffield expects to receive a “modest increase” to its budget.
The future: If Sheffield City Council is to have any hope of weathering the current financial storm, councillors from all parties will need to work together. “There is a mammoth task ahead of us, and every year it gets harder,” said Cllr Naz. “By tackling these issues early, transparently, proactively and cross-party, we’re doing all we can to protect the services we know the people of Sheffield rely on.” While she promised Sheffield Council “will continue to deliver for this incredible city” through major regeneration projects like Castlegate, spending public money on such projects will become increasingly hard to justify if its financial future remains uncertain.
Our take: Sheffield City Council hopefully has the good financial sense to avoid having to issue a section 114 notice but the process will not be painless and residents from all walks of life will feel the pinch. The city’s most vulnerable may find it even harder to get the support they need, while even well-off residents may notice public services are not running as smoothly as they once did.
Our media picks 🎧
The UK's Most Dangerous Neighbourhood 📺 An excellent example of what The Tribune was set up to fight against is this video by YouTuber Backpacker Ben. In the film he visits the Sheffield neighbourhood of Page Hall simply to talk about how awful it is. Astonishingly, he then has the audacity to be surprised when people don’t want to speak to him. It’s poverty porn of the worst kind (for some decent reporting about Page Hall, see our piece from earlier this year).
Sadness as Sheffield heritage boozer to close 🍻 The last pub on the Wicker is to close this week, The Star report. The Big Gun first opened during the reign of George III in 1790 and has been the final remaining pub since the Tap and Barrel closed six years ago. Sheffield pub expert Dave Pickersgill said the self-styled “nice pub for nice people” was in fact two pubs in one with a much nicer side where beer would have traditionally been 10p cheaper.
The Coleman and the Coal Man 🎸 Former Sheffield musician Roger Quail continues his quest to document every gig he’s ever been to with this piece which looks back to 1983. This was the year Roger’s band The Box played with The Killing Joke, a band seemingly in the middle of a nervous breakdown, and also — through his job at the National Coal Board — meets NUM boss Arthur Scargill. Roger’s also done a podcast episode to go with the piece.
Home of the week 🏡
This gorgeous family home in Grenoside has four bedrooms, a large open plan downstairs area, and huge patio doors leading to a spacious garden. It is on the market for £450,000.
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Things to do 📆
Heritage 📚 Last week saw the start of Heritage Open Days, 10 days of events celebrating Sheffield’s rich history. The city has one of the biggest programmes outside London, with all events led by noted local experts. For a full list of everything that’s happening, download the brochure here. Of particular interest to Tribune readers could be Parkwood Springs: Deer Park to Country Park on Thursday 14 and the Kelham Island walking tour on Tuesday 12.
Comedy 🎙️ On Wednesday, 13 September top Irish comedian Ed Byrne returns to The Leadmill on his latest tour. A master of observational comedy, Byrne has been a fixture on television panel shows for the last two decades, but it’s in his stand up shows that he truly excels. In his new show Tragedy Plus Time (named after Mark Twain’s definition of comedy) he mines his life’s most tragic event for laughs. Tickets are £27.50 and doors open at 7pm.
Art 🖼️ Grazing Upon the Countryside is an exhibition of animal and landscape oil paintings at Bloc Projects on Matilda Street that exude movement, light and a sense of wanderlust. Created by Sheffield-based artist, nature lover and former neuroscientist Greta Vilidaite, the free show started last week and will run until Thursday, 14 September. For opening times see Greta’s website. A special artist talk and demo will take place on 12 September (6-8pm).
Chileans of the North 🇨🇱
Many of you enjoyed our recent piece about The Other 9/11, and the documentary I based the piece on is showing tonight (Monday, 11 September) on Sheffield Live. The film tells the story of the Chileans who settled in Sheffield after the country’s military coup in 1973, and the huge contribution they have made to their adopted city. The documentary will be shown on Freeview channel 7 at 7.30pm.