‘I thought I could just keep on getting grumpy on Twitter, or I can actually do something’
We speak to Tom Hunt about austerity, divisions in Labour, and why Sheffield is ‘the best city in the world’
By Dan Hayes
It’s absolutely stunning up on Blacka Moor. In the crystal clear air, you can see all the way over to Herdings flats and the Norton water tower. But it’s also treacherous underfoot. We’re in the last hour of sunlight, the temperature is already dropping precipitously, and the ground is becoming slippy underfoot. I’ve always been foolhardy, but my smooth-soled work shoes are completely inappropriate for these conditions. Tom Hunt, on the other hand, is dressed eminently sensibly. The new leader of Sheffield City Council, who I’ve been shadowing all day, is wearing sturdy walking boots.
We’ve come up here with the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust to talk about moorland burning, which hit the headlines when the city was blanketed by smoke from grouse moor fires in October. The Trust’s chief executive Liz Ballard warns us not to go on. We continue at my encouragement, but just a step further on and Hunt is on his backside. Pratfalls by politicians are writ large in the annals of British politics, particularly in the Labour Party — thoughts of Neil Kinnock falling on the beach and Ed Miliband’s bacon butty flood through my head — but thankfully, Hunt is fine. After picking his 6’4” frame up and dusting himself down, he quickly records a video for use on the council’s social media channels and we head back to the city.
Hunt has been the leader of Sheffield City Council for six months, but no journalist has had a chance to speak to him about the role in serious depth yet (the last time we spoke was back in May, on the same day he became leader, and understandably he only had time for a 15-minute chat). At the time he promised a longer chat, and earlier this month agreed to a “day in the life” style profile which would see us visit an arts organisation to talk about culture funding, a natural flood defence project in the Limb Brook valley, and finally here to Blacka Moor. I also wanted to find out more about who he is, what he hopes to do, and how he is dealing with everything from the continuing fallout of the street tree saga and the shock defection of eight Labour councillors, to low traffic neighbourhoods and the authority’s challenging financial situation.
The first time I spoke to Hunt was back in April 2021, for one of The Tribune’s very first newsletters. Back then, he was still the deputy director of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) at the University of Sheffield, and I was hearing what the city could do with the former John Lewis building after the department store’s sudden departure. Just over a year later, he became councillor for his home ward of Walkley, and a year after that leader of Sheffield City Council — at 36, the youngest since David Blunkett back in 1980. Like me he’s a Sheffield outsider, but he can trace his roots back longer here a bit further than I can. He came to the city to study politics in 2005 and has stayed ever since, first working for Sheffield Central MP Paul Blomfield before moving onto the university in 2015.
The difference between Hunt and his predecessor Terry Fox couldn’t be greater. Fox is a former coal miner and union rep, while one Labour party figure I spoke to earlier this year described Hunt as a “policy seminar kind of guy”. He has a confident, professorial command of the issues, and speaks in a fluent and polished manner. Fox, on the other hand, spoke in a stream of consciousness that reminded me of former Labour deputy leader John Prescott, where you get the gist of what he’s saying but was actually gobbledegook when you come to write it down. There have been accusations that the centre of gravity in the Sheffield Labour Party is moving away from its traditional working class roots towards the professional classes (or, to use a local analogy, away from deprived east of the city in favour of the leafier west). Activists have suggested that the Labour’s high command wanted Hunt in, and that the local party is merely a vassal of the national leadership — something Hunt categorically denies.
We start the day at the sleek concrete structure of Yorkshire Artspace’s (YAS) Persistence Works building on Brown Street. I know from following Hunt on Twitter before he became a councillor that he’s an art lover, although his weekend tweets about art exhibitions have dried up somewhat over the last 18 months. As we walk round the light and airy purpose built studios, he talks to the YAS’s CEO and trustees about the council’s new culture strategy. Sheffield famously gets just a fraction of the arts funding as other northern cities — Manchester gets seven times the amount we do, for example — and Hunt wants to address this by creating a new culture strategy that brings what’s happening across the city under one umbrella. This includes everything from the work going on at Persistence Works, some of which will be appearing next year in one of the most prestigious art shows in the world (I’ve promised not to tell), to smaller galleries like the nearby Bloc Projects and even the city’s street art scene.
“You don’t realise just how much is going on in Sheffield,” Hunts says. “We had a huge A1 map open in the Town Hall recently and it really is taking place all over the city.” The organisations who make the decisions about how much funding the city gets, like the Arts Council, want to see more ambition, he adds. He thinks while there is a huge amount of great work taking place in Sheffield, we don’t shout about it enough, and he hopes this is something the new culture strategy can address. He also wants to change the narrative on Sheffield, from one of decline to one of optimism and points to several major developments and big events like the MOBO Awards that are due to be completed or take place in the city in 2024. And he’s excited about the prospects for expanding the city’s tram network, using money freed up from the cancellation of HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail to create new tram train links to Stocksbridge and Barrow Hill.
Sitting down in Site Gallery’s Kollective café before our next appointment, Hunt tells me why he put his academic career on pause to pursue a career in politics. He says that the pandemic caused him to reassess what he was doing in his professional life, and wonder whether he could maybe do something different. “Like a lot of us, I started thinking whether I was 100% happy with everything I'm doing,” he says. “And I wasn’t. I was really angry with what I was seeing in the country. I realised that I wanted to give more to the city.” He was increasingly frustrated by the fact that people were more likely to die from COVID if they were in a low-paid job, and the government’s refusal to pay proper sick pay. “I thought I could just keep on getting grumpy on Twitter, or I can actually do something.”
We head up in his car to the Limb Brook valley to look at a natural flood defence project. On the way up, we talk about the impact of austerity and levelling up. Over the last 13 years, councils have found themselves in the unenviable position of having their budgets slashed while simultaneously having to be grateful for any crumbs that central government does let fall from the table. While the millions of pounds that have been dropped on the council to transform Castlegate, Attercliffe, and now Parkwood Springs are welcome, Hunt says the government is still essentially giving with one hand and taking with the other. Case in point? The crumbly RAAC concrete found at Abbey Lane Primary School in Woodseats. The council identified the issue last year, long before the story blew up nationally in August, but they’re not being given any money by the government to fix it. This problem could have been avoided, Hunt says, if the coalition government hadn’t decided to cancel the Building Schools for the Future programme in 2010. “If there had been sufficient investment in our school estate over the last 13 years then we may not have had the problem of finding buildings that are unsafe,” he says. “Actions have consequences.”
As a result of its financial straitjacket, the council is left having to make the best of a bad situation, fulfilling its statutory functions while doing bits over and above this where it can. Other authorities, like Birmingham and most recently Nottingham, have reached the point where they can no longer even fulfil their statutory duties and have issued ‘section 114’ notices, meaning they are effectively bankrupt. More are predicted to follow suit over the next year. I skirt around the issue of whether Sheffield City Council might soon find itself in the same position, but Hunt puts an end to my mumbling: “We’re not,” he says, categorically.
What little financial headroom the council does have has to be managed carefully, though. With the help of the Environment Agency and the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust, they have just built a set of natural flood defences at Limb Brook. Just beyond the football pitches at Whirlow playing fields off Limb Lane are several ponds which act to slow water down off the hills and into the rivers, in theory reducing the risk of devastating floods downstream, as happened in Sheffield city centre in 2007. The Blacka Moor project is related to flooding, too. The council-owned moorland is managed for biodiversity and flood prevention, but it sits within a sea of much larger moors that are intensively managed for grouse shooting. Earlier this year, The Tribune reported on the thick clouds of smoke that blanketed the city after landowners set the moorlands on fire for shooting. In the video that Hunt takes on the moor, he explains that he is writing to the government to call for a complete ban on moorland burning by grouse farmers.
It’s rush hour as we drive back to the city centre. As we crawl down Ecclesall Road, I raise the issue of active travel neighbourhood schemes. Hunt was elected as councillor for Walkley in May 2022, just a month before that area’s ATN was due to be brought in. Over the last year and a half, the Walkley scheme, as well as those in Crookes and Nether Edge, have divided these areas into strongly pro and anti-active travel factions. In October, much reduced schemes finally got the go ahead in the three areas, with travel activists like Cycle Sheffield accusing councillors of siding with the “angry motorist” vote. Hunt accepts there have been delays, but points out that work is currently taking place to create Sheffield's first Dutch roundabout at West Bar. In Walkley, Crookes, and Nether Edge, he says that the problem was that the trials were foisted on local communities with little consultation. “By the time things are appearing on the streets, you need to have a groundswell of support, and that didn’t happen,” he tells me. “The starting point has to be how do we have safer, nicer streets, and if we frame it like that then we can have success.” As well as rushed consultations, he puts the blame for the current row of active travel on the government, who after the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election saw it as a wedge issue that could solve their electoral woes.
Still, the episode illustrates a cautiousness that seems to echo that of the national Labour party. When previous leader Terry Fox was ousted after poor local election results, the Sheffield Labour Party revealed they had been working with a national party campaign improvement board for the previous year. Lib Dem leader Shaffaq Mohammed and It’s Our City’s Ruth Hubbard have suggested this means that the Sheffield Labour Party is now effectively run by some apparatchik in London, which Hunt denies. “All they [the campaign improvement board] do is provide a little bit of advice to me and to Labour colleagues about learning from the successes of other Labour groups in the country,” he says.
Even so, there are similarities between Hunt’s approach and that of Labour under Keir Starmer. In the past, Sheffield Labour councillors have often called for a new funding settlement for local government. Hunt calls for something subtly different: he wants councils to be given longer term multi-year funding settlements, allowing them to plan for the future and manage their money better. This has the advantage of being fiscally neutral, meaning he is not actually asking for more money to be spent. Labour under Starmer are so ruthlessly focused on winning the next election they also don’t want any calls for new spending to get in the way. This extreme caution currently permeates the party from top to bottom. Still, Hunt bristles at the characterisation of him as a professional class policy seminar guy, calling it “a bit clichéd”. He adds that he has never done a PhD and spent most of his career at the university conducting work on the future of trade unions, industrial strategy, and regional economics. Hunt doesn’t think people should just be judged on the jobs they did before politics. “That’s not the totality of who we are,” he insists.
The lack of trust from some quarters probably isn’t surprising. The long tail of the Sheffield tree protests, which saw the then Labour-led council thrust into conflict with many of its natural supporters, continues to shape the city’s politics. One of the first things Hunt did after becoming leader was to issue a full apology for the council’s role in the long-running scandal, and he’s well aware they have more to do to win back the support lost during the saga. The apology and the new leadership team is an attempt to draw a line under the incredibly damaging period, but this has also had unintended consequences. Chief among these is the situation of former leader Terry Fox, who along with seven other former Labour councillors now sit as Sheffield Community Councillors after leaving the party in September. The reason given for their departure was a local row over a traveller site in Beighton, but many believe that it was coming ever since Fox was sacked as leader by the national party on the day of this year’s local elections. When I ask Hunt about the defections, I get what feels like a well-rehearsed answer. “Every resignation from the Labour groups is regrettable, and I’m sorry to see my former colleagues leave us,” he says. “I will work with them in the interests of improving our city, but there is a three-party administration of Labour, Liberal Democrats, and the Greens, and the formation of the new group doesn’t change that.” When I ask him if there is any way back for the eight rebels, he thinks for a few seconds before saying, “you’d have to ask them that”.
Hunt is officially on a “career break” from his university job, having decided to carry out his leadership role full-time. I don’t know how his current wage of £41,000 a year compares with what he got previously, but I’d guess when you add in campaigning at the weekend that he’s a good deal busier than he was before. When I point out that it doesn’t sound like much considering the considerable responsibilities he now has, he says, accurately, that £41,000 a year is a “very good wage” compared to many in the city. At various points during the day he admits that his attempts to find time to switch off from his heavy schedule are still a “work in progress”. During the summer he says he took a walk with his family to find the source of the River Don, but it does sound like these excursions are still the exception rather than the rule. Despite the very long hours and the way the job has taken over his life, does he regret taking it on? No, he says. He jokes “no set hours or job description” exists for the role he now has, but that to affect change in the city he first came to as a student back in 2005 is a fantastic opportunity. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
He describes Sheffield as “the best city in the world”. Whenever I’ve heard other people say it, it’s smacked of boosterism. Does he actually believe it? “I really do,” he says. On the occasions he does get to switch off, he says he likes to come up here to Blacka Moor. I can see why. “Where else in the world could you drive a few minutes out of a city and get to see countryside like that?”
Do you think Tom Hunt is doing a good job so far? As always, paying members can join the debate in the comments.