Stocksbridge won the Levelling Up lottery. Who should decide how to spend the money?
‘They’re not really even trying to justify it. They're just saying that's the decision. Suck it up’
Good morning members — and welcome to today’s Tribune.
What would you do with £24 million? In 2020, Stocksbridge received the windfall as part of the government’s Levelling Up scheme to regenerate so-called “left-behind towns”. The money was meant to be spent on a wide range of projects, but four years later it has been revealed that most of it is to be spent on just one. The row goes to the heart of how public money is spent. The board set up to spend the money says they are doing what local residents want, while others allege they have prioritised their own pet projects. Who is right?
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Your Tribune briefing
🚲 The Star report on the long-running saga of the city centre bike hub, which is now three years late. The facility, which will be based on the ground floor of the Vita Student building on Charter Row, has suffered delays due to problems with the power supply, and now the dangers posed by e-bikes. Operators Russell’s Bicycle Shed say they will need a higher level of fire safety due to the danger the bikes could burst into flames. It is hoped the hub will open in March.
🏚️ Now Then have an intriguing update to the Market Tavern story we featured a few weeks ago. The 110-year-old former pub was condemned before Christmas after its chimneys were found to be structurally unsound. However, photos obtained exclusively by Now Then appear to support claims by heritage campaigners that Sheffield Council went ahead with demolition, despite an offer from SAVE Britain’s Heritage to reassess the historic Castlegate building.
🌳 More love for Sheffield in the pages of the national press comes this time from the BBC Travel website who name the Steel City as one of the planet’s top “green getaways”. The piece includes flying visits to the Shepherd Wheel Workshop, Endcliffe Park, the Botanical Gardens, Grey to Green and Norfolk Heritage Park, and also quotes the Greenground Map graphic designer Helen Ilus as saying Sheffield is “the coolest city” she’s ever worked with.
Things to do
🚨 Why was Sheffield known as “Little Chicago” during the 1920s and what about the Rhino Whip Affair caused a police chief to resign in 1963? How is Samuel Holberry’s Chartist uprising commemorated today and who was England’s most wanted man Charlie Peace? Find out in the “pay what you feel” law and disorder, murder and mayhem tour walking tours of Sheffield which takes place this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, starting at Lady’s Bridge.
🎤 The Last Laugh Comedy Club returns to Sheffield City Hall this Friday and Saturday, bringing the finest comedians in the country to Sheffield's longest-running comedy night. Appearing this weekend will be Chortle and Sony award winner Michael Legge, rising star and “recovering chav” Dani Johns, and musical funny man Andy Askins. The compere for the evening will be Joe Zalias. Tickets are £18 (£10 students) and doors will open at 7.45pm.
🪴 On Sunday, the first Sheffield Plant Swap of the year will take place at the Botanical Gardens. Bring your spare house plants, plant babies or even mature plants to exchange along with horticultural tips and knowledge in an informal social setting. All are welcome to attend (people and plants alike), just make sure your plants are rooted, so they have the best chance to thrive in their new home. Drop off swaps at 12:30pm to begin swapping at 1pm.
Stocksbridge won the Levelling Up lottery. Who should decide how to spend the money?
By Dan Hayes
“Unveiled — a brand new vision for Stocksbridge”, reads the latest post on the Welcome to Stocksbridge website. Underneath the headline, an artist’s impression shows a striking edifice: three storeys, huge windows, tasteful grey bricks. This building on Manchester Road will one day be home to Stocksbridge’s “state of the art” new library, as well as community space, classrooms for adult learning and managed workspace. It will, according to Ian Sanderson, the town deal board lead for the “Stocksbridge 519” project, be a “real game changer” for the town.
The announcement was the culmination of a process that began shortly after the 2019 general election. As part of the grand “Levelling Up” of previously neglected parts of England, Boris Johnson’s government announced a £3.6 billion fund intended to spur economic growth in England’s most struggling towns. Stocksbridge received the dubious honour of being chosen in the first ever round of this funding, and was handed £24 million.
Of course, there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then. Covid hit just a few months later, followed by the cost of living crisis, followed by the war in Ukraine. All have eaten into how far the money awarded in 2020 will actually stretch in 2024. Indeed, when Stocksbridge was awarded the money four years ago, the successful bid included 10 different projects, ranging from ones focused on the town centre to others which extended into the countryside around the town. However, the “new vision” — and £20 million of the £24 million Stocksbridge was awarded in 2020 — is focused almost entirely on the town centre.
Some might say this was inevitable in the face of rising inflation. But some stakeholders are now calling for Sheffield City Council to “instigate a thorough review of the decisions taken” by the board set up to manage the project. In a letter seen by The Tribune, they allege that the board has not been transparent, professional or objective. They also say it lacks broad representation, and has failed to consult adequately on its latest proposals. The board includes both Miriam Cates (MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge) and Julie Grocutt (Sheffield City Councillor for Stocksbridge and Upper Don). Neither responded to repeated interview requests for this article.
Chris Bell was asked to join the town deal board shortly after the money was awarded in early 2020. He was brought in initially due to his involvement in the Don Valley Line campaign — a decades-long drive to reopen a rail link between Stocksbridge and Sheffield to passenger services. However, when this later became a Department for Transport project, he was given responsibility for the trails and activities part of the Levelling Up deal, a £2.75 million project that would have gone a substantial way towards completing the Upper Don Trail, a 23km walking and cycling route linking Sheffield city centre with the Peak District.
Bell acknowledges that skyrocketing inflation did pose big problems to the overall town deal from early 2022 onwards. “The costs went out of the window,” he says. “We had to think: what could we do with the money we had?” However, it soon became increasingly difficult to get answers on the status of the trails project.
Beginning to grow nervous, Bell attended a meeting of council’s strategy and resources committee, where he knew the Stocksbridge towns deal funding was set to be discussed. “I just wanted to know what was going on,” he tells me. However, at the next meeting of the town deal board in January 2023, he was told that doing so had undermined the board’s work and it was insisted that he leave. “[Board co-chair] Ian Sanderson asked me what I was thinking,” Bell tells me. “I didn't say anything because I was unprepared for the question. I just attended a meeting as a member of the public.”
The official reason given for Bell’s departure was that the towns deal didn’t involve the rail project anymore and because he didn’t live in Stocksbridge. The minutes of the meeting say he resigned from the board. However, Bell says this is false. The Tribune has seen an email which shows that he asked for the minutes be altered to reflect what actually happened. He says he never heard back.
Howard Varns, the city council’s programme manager for the Stocksbridge town deal, was also in attendance at the board meeting. “I think he considered me attending the council meeting as an act of treachery against the project,” says Bell. The decision to remove him from the board was endorsed by Julie Grocutt, someone who Bell had previously worked closely with on other projects. “It was a bit shitty what happened to me, really,” he says. “I was stabbed in the back.”