Is a new ‘estate for millionaires’ about to be forced on Fulwood?
'Each flat is going to go for half a million easy. It’s just money grabbing'
By Dan Hayes
Of the 145 public comments on planning application 23/03687/FUL, 143 are objections. “The plans are totally out of character with the beautiful valley and the surrounding accommodation,” reads one. “The objections to date both express the emotional and clearly very expert rational opinions from the highly educated, and in many cases, privileged residents of this part of Sheffield.”
You might think that the residents of Fulwood would be happy. From sleepy Woofindin Road rises a concrete latticework of pure 1960s modernism; a “monstrosity” according to most in the area. Nearby squats a two-storey concrete bunker which looks like something you’d take shelter in after a nuclear attack. And sandwiched incongruously between the two? A mock-Tudor cottage which dates from 1911.
Until a few years ago, the whole complex was home to the Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Trust. But soon most of it will be razed to the ground. A planning notification cable-tied to a nearby lamppost reveals that after demolition, 87 homes could soon be built on the site in 21 buildings, the tallest of which will be a nine storeys high. When complete, the estate will be a new luxury development in one of Sheffield’s most desirable locations. With price tags to match. If people hate the current building so much, why aren’t people happy about the new development, I ask one man. “Well they wouldn’t be, would they?”
This unhappiness runs contrary to the facts. Sheffield is famously short of housing and needs to find around 35,000 new homes over the next 15 years to keep pace with demand. Everyone agrees we can’t build on the green belt and that green field sites should be avoided too. In this context, a brown field former NHS site feels like a perfect windfall for Sheffield City Council. After reading through dozens of lengthy objections, I began to wonder — is this NIMBYism, plain and simple? Namely, people who think that development can and should happen, just Not In My Back Yard? Or is the reality a bit more complex?
Gazing up at the “monstrosity” from Woofindin Road, a security guard in a mobile metal hut asks me why I’m taking a picture of the ugliest building in the area. Satisfied with my answer, he agrees to take me on a tour of the site. He’s taken various groups of architects and councillors looking round the complex over the last few years, and is aware that development is imminent. As well as the main eight storey building you can see from the road, down the hill there are a number of lower rise buildings and a car park where the tallest parts of the new development will be built. On the other side of the views are breathtaking. The plans show the new houses and apartments will all feature balconies or terraces facing west towards the Mayfield Valley and the Peak District beyond. The sunset views will add several tens of thousands to the asking prices of each one.
Fulwood looks like it’s barely changed over the last century. But a lot of development has taken place here — over the last 60 years at least. Hiding away between the beautiful stone cottages are post war flats which look like something you’d see in the Gleadless Valley rather than Fulwood. More recently, new build properties have continued to fill in any spare parcels of land in the area, with the latest one nearing completion opposite the former NHS site. The classic two-storey stone house is very much in keeping with the area and has been accepted without much fuss.
Matt Wyles from the Fulwood Motor Company, a business which has been ever present in the area since the 1940s, says this is exactly the kind of development they want in the area, rather than what is being planned. He’s worried about a lot of aspects of the new development, from its impact on parking to the loss of trees. But it’s the height that’s causing most concern — he says that the previous plans for a more traditional low-rise estate were “much nicer”. “People are worried that someone is going to come from outside and build something atrocious,” he says. “This is one of the nicest areas in Sheffield and someone who has nothing to do with this place is going to come up and ruin it.”
Lynne Fox lives in a flat on nearby Hangingwater Road, having downsized from a larger house in Norfolk Park. While she doesn't seem too concerned about the development’s height, arguing that they are “replacing like with like” and that it’s probably better built here than on the green belt, she is concerned by the type of housing that is planned. “A lot of older people are in houses they don’t need but there are no options for them to move into,” she says. 87 luxury homes that are likely to cost at least £500,000 each don’t exactly meet this housing need, she adds.
The site’s developers aren’t exactly hiding their intentions. “We propose to create outstandingly unique homes of impressive scale,” reads the application. The estate will consist of 15 houses, six apartments, and five more apartment blocks housing a total of 67 units. The artist’s impressions show buildings ranging from four storeys at the top of the site to nine storeys at the bottom. But architects Blenheim say that despite their scale, the homes will “nestle into the landscape and compliment the surroundings” (they say the bottom three storeys of the nine storey building will actually be below ground so won’t be visible from Woofindin Road).
The new development is also on the edge of the Fulwood Conservation Area. Development in or near a conservation area has to take account of the historic character of the area in terms of the layout of the new homes, their design style and the materials they are built from. The homes will blend in with the area by using materials including red brick, timber and stone walls, slate or clay tiles and “green roofs”. While respecting the “distinct local characteristics” of Fulwood, developers say they will create “beautiful and environmentally conscious homes” that will “add to the patina of the Mayfield Valley”.
But after an hour or so walking around, it’s clear that the developers’ assurances have fallen on deaf ears. One resident tells me the local WhatsApp groups have been “exploding” over the planning application. However, as we get talking, she confides that it usually doesn't take much. A man who was recently reported as “acting suspiciously” by wearing “a hoodie and flip-flops” turned out to be a local resident. The woman adds that her neighbours weren't happy when their house was built. And pointing out a two storey apartment building in front of us, she says that one resident even hired a lawyer to get the developer to take an entire floor of the building so as not to spoil his view. Getting rid of the hated NHS building would be a positive for her, but most people are worried about what will come in its place. “People just don’t like new development,” she says.
Walking her magnificent poodle Chadwick up Woofindin Road is Lydia Monks, who lives near Forge Dam at the bottom of the valley. For Lydia, as well as the nine storey buildings, it’s the sheer size and scale of what’s being proposed that is the major problem with the current proposals. She adds that someone worked out that there could be an extra 600 people living here as a result of the development, which for a small place like Fulwood would be a big influx in one fell swoop. “I understand why people want to live here,” she tells me. “But you also want to protect why people want to live here as well. I know it sounds very NIMBYish.”
And picking up litter with a mechanical grabber in front of the tidiest recycling point I’ve ever seen is Vivienne Jenson. She lives in one of the post war flats down Sefton Road and described herself as “one of the poor ones” in the area. But she says that rich and poor alike aren’t keen on what is being proposed. “This used to be an area where it was very strictly on what you could and couldn’t do,” she says. “But things are changing all the time.”
Listening to some of these complaints makes me feel like getting out the world’s smallest violin. Having recently written about Gleadless Valley, where residents are crying out for new investment, the concerns of middle-class Fulwood can feel like the least of the city’s concerns. They’re having a new luxury development built in their area? Oh, how awful. People in other parts of Sheffield have little say in how their area will change, why should Fulwood have a veto over any and every new development which takes place in their beautiful neighbourhood?
But a certain amount of middle class guilt and bias is at play here on my part. People are affected emotionally by changes which happen in their area, especially if they feel like they have little say in the process. As Claire Haggett puts it in her essay ‘A call for clarity and a review of the empirical evidence’, “a wealth of empirical evidence has convincingly argued that NIMBYism — selfish, irrational behaviour by local people unconcerned for the greater good — is actually very rare." She argues that while protest clearly exists, it’s “hardly ever on the basis of selfish reasons alone”. And she refers to a range of studies which attempted to determine if a protest was NIMBY or not, all of which struggled to establish any evidence for nimbyish being the basis of opposition. Instead, these studies from all over the world found that protest to new builds wasn’t mounted on the basis of selfishness or stupidity, but quite the opposite: on their detailed knowledge of both the area and the development. Opposition was often centred in a developer coming from outside and having a less nuanced understanding of the area.
I can sympathise with this to an extent. As long-term Trib enthusiasts will probably know, I live at Park Hill flats in Sheffield city centre, a building considered so beautiful (by some, not all) that fans of brutalist architecture travel hundreds of miles to see it. Over my six years of living there I’ve become a big fan of modernism myself. I even have a Brutalism Calendar 2024 that my mum bought me for Christmas. Some might call me a snob. Looking out from my bedroom window at the plastic clad Gateway building next to Park Hill, I often find myself thinking: why can’t everything be built according to Bauhaus principles?
In Sheffield’s political topography, Fulwood is deep Lib Dem country. Ward councillors Andrew Sangar and Sue Alston say they have already had around 60 emails about the development, with most people complaining about two things: the scale and height of the development and the number of trees that will be lost. Alston says that the majority of people in the area accept that the site will be used for housing, but disagree with the development as proposed. She tells me people thought that once the tower block was demolished it would be replaced by something that blended in more with the valley. “I was a bit shocked when I saw these plans,” she says. “It's almost like saying, well, there’s a high building there now so we should carry on having high buildings, but it was that high building that local people really wanted to get rid of.”
When the outline planning permission was granted three or four years ago, the councillors conducted a survey of what kind of housing people would like to see at the site. People’s preferences were for a mixture of properties including places suitable for people who wanted to downsize as well as smaller family homes that young families could move into without having to leave the area. “But what we're actually getting is lots of really luxury end properties,” says Alston.
Sangar says they’ve long known that it would be difficult to argue that the site shouldn’t be redeveloped at all. It’s the largest site in the area and is also on a relatively well-served bus route, making it a more sustainable location for a large development. But like those who filled in the survey, he thinks that the current development isn’t what the area really needs. “There are so many four or five bedroom houses in Fulwood and Ranmoor where older people should be thinking about downsizing,” he says. “This development is an opportunity to encourage some of that downsizing and I'm concerned we're gonna miss that opportunity.”
But isn’t this just NIMBYism, I ask them? Faced with a groaning postbag and local elections due in three months, they’d be foolish to go against what many people in Fulwood seem to think, wouldn't they? Alston rejects this, arguing that all they want is for the local community to be expanded in a sustainable way that actually improves the valley. “I don’t think it's that people don't want anybody to live there,” she says. “It's very much the actual design.” While the design is clearly a factor of people’s opposition, I get the feeling that adding hundreds of people to the area would have caused protests no matter what the homes looked like.
Back at the Fulwood Motor Company, Matt Wyles agrees that the needs of the developers have been prioritised over the needs of the area. He says the NHS sold the land for £13 million, while the developers will be looking to sell the properties for upwards of £40 million in total at least. Even after you’ve factored in the construction costs, profits on the site are likely to run into the tens of millions of pounds. “Each flat is going to go for half a million easy,” he tells me. “It’s just money grabbing.” One of the objections on the council’s planning site echoed Matt’s complaints by describing the development as an “estate for millionaires”.
But the problem for Matt and other objectors is that is the way that development works — in Sheffield and around the UK. Councillors do have some weapons on their armoury to resist development, such as design guides and conservation areas. And they can even reject the whole scheme — but given Sheffield’s inability to build enough homes or even agree where such homes should be, there’s always a chance this could be overturned on appeal.
The outcry is understandable, but will it change anything? After all, developers don’t have to cater to the population of the places they're building in — they answer to profit holders. At the end of the day, money is always going to come first. Average house prices in the area are well north of half a million, and plenty of properties sell for twice that. Of course, it would be lovely if the council could force developers to build more affordable housing in places like Fulwood. Sadly, that seems like the stuff of fairytale in today’s Britain.
What do you think of the plans? Are luxury developments inevitable in places like Fulwood or should housebuilders be required to build more socially responsible properties? As always, paying members can let us know in the comments section.