1. Economics
December 12, 2017

“A massive suburb for the wider north”: some thoughts on the problem of Sheffield

By Andrew Hirst

Recently, CityMetric published an article entitled “What’s the matter with Sheffield?”, in which Jonn Elledge used the Centre for Cities data tool to show that Sheffield comes close to the bottom (out of the largest eight English cities outside of London) on almost every measure of economic performance, including business start-ups, GVA per worker, and workplace earnings. It also comes close to last on the ratio of public to private sector jobs and overall employment rates.

Confusingly, Sheffield does pretty well on the education front, having a decent number of pupils achieving 5 A*-C GCSEs including Maths and English, having relatively few residents with no qualifications, and sitting comfortably mid-table for people with degree level qualifications. It also has two relatively big universities that are nationally and internationally respected, churning out as many graduates as the other large cities of the north.

So, what’s going on here? Jonn guesses at a few possible explanations: Sheffield’s place on the railway network (not being a destination), the difficulty of getting to Manchester due to the Peak District, and the city’s infamously poor broadband.

I’m not sure Sheffield’s place on the railway network is really a significant problem. It’s true that the station has relatively small passenger numbers compared to Leeds, Manchester, and Liverpool (Sheffield had 9,538,052 entries and exits in 2016-17, compared to 30,942,592 for Leeds, 27,807,062 for Manchester Piccadilly, and 31,648,88 in total for Liverpool Central and Liverpool Lime Street) but it has more passengers than Newcastle (8,426,644) and Nottingham (7,468,864). The numbers aren’t incredible, but it’s kind of mid-table here.

Sheffield Railway Station. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It’s definitely tricky to get to Sheffield from Manchester due to the Peak District, but a fast train is still only 52 mins. (Driving, on the other hand, is a complete nightmare due to the winding and narrow Snake Pass being the major driving route.) The fast train to Leeds only takes 40 mins, and a fast train to Nottingham is 50 mins. These journey times should be shorter than they are (bring on HS3), but they’re comparable to journey times between any of the major northern cities.

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Fast broadband access is definitely a problem, and will probably be putting off some businesses. Still, fast broadband lines do exist; they’re just not part of the normal network, and require a bit of extra effort (and cost) to get connected to. Sheffield has also been selected as one of the small number of places across the country taking part in a trial of Openreach’s new “G.fast” ultrafast broadand, so things may be looking up in the near future.

So, what are some other possible explanations?

An underdeveloped city centre

The opening of Meadowhall in 1990 lead to a steady decline of the city centre. It didn’t just affect retail; it also reduced the number of office jobs in the centre and created a business sprawl from the city centre out towards Meadowhall.

Compare this to the strong, centralised business clustering you see in cities such as Leeds and Manchester. Given that the area around Meadowhall is comprised almost entirely of low-density sprawl and is designed mostly around the car, it makes accessing these jobs difficult and unpleasant for people without cars (and even for people with cars due to the notorious congestion around that entire area). Many of these jobs are also in unpleasant and soulless “business parks” like this and this, which don’t exactly scream prestige or excitement.

Meadowhall. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The economic battle between the city centre and Meadowhall has been going on for a long time, and became even more intense recently when Sheffield’s HS2 station was initially proposed to be at Meadowhall. This proposal angered the city council and city centre businesses so much that they mounted a campaign to move the station to the centre, which was eventually successful. Unfortunately, this move upset neighbouring councils enough to derail long-established devolution plans for the region.

Also, whilst everywhere suffered during the 2007-2008 financial crisis, Sheffield’s already underdeveloped city centre fell far behind the city centres of the other large cities of the north. Whereas Liverpool managed to get its massive new retail quarter Liverpool One completed before the worst of the recession hit, Sheffield’s new retail quarter fell behind and entered developmental hell, eventually being scrapped (in its initial guise at least). Manchester had already, ironically, benefitted from the massive amount of regeneration money that flooded into the city following the 1996 IRA bomb. Trinity Leeds was delayed by the recession, but still managed to open four years ago.

This has all prevented Sheffield city centre being a serious destination for people in the region. This isn’t to say that Sheffield has a horrible city centre – far from it. There are many beautiful Georgian and Victorian buildings in the centre, such as Sheffield Cathedral and the Town Hall; and large-scale regeneration projects currently in progress such as The Moor and the Retail Quarter.

The problem with Sheffield city centre is that it just feels weirdly small given the size of the city. It lacks the scope and grandeur of similarly sized cities. If a city doesn’t seem like a booming, exciting place to be (especially compared to its near neighbours) then why would you spend money there? Why would you start a business there?

This problem has a (relatively) simple solution at least: continue developing the city centre, and focus on creating a bustling city feel. This could be achieved through taller, denser buildings, and more impressive landmark developments. Meadowhall may create some value for the region, but it doesn’t exactly look impressive and isn’t going to wow outside investors and job creators.

The job problem, part 1: a lack of jobs

The next part of this article will look at three related problems surrounding jobs in the city.

For a long time, I’ve suspected that Sheffield simply doesn’t have as many jobs as it should have given the large number of people living in the region. As such, I used the numbers of public and private jobs from the Centre for Cities data tool for the eight largest English cities outside London and compared them to their populations of in order to generate a number for jobs available per person for these cities. Here are the results:

  • Leeds: 0.57
  • Bristol: 0.55
  • Nottingham: 0.49
  • Liverpool: 0.48
  • Newcastle: 0.48
  • Manchester: 0.47
  • Birmingham: 0.43
  • Sheffield: 0.43

As you can see, Sheffield is joint last with Birmingham. However, I did some more digging, and it turns out this is only due to the Centre for Cities’ definition of city sizes. It uses the Primary Urban Areas definition of city size. As explained here, this means that “Sheffield” is defined as the Sheffield and Rotherham local authority areas, which doesn’t include Doncaster, Barnsley, Chesterfield, or any other commuter towns that might reasonably be considered part of the Sheffield metropolitan area.

Birmingham’s primary urban area definition, on the other hand, includes the local authority districts of Birmingham, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall, and Wolverhampton; far more exhaustive than the Sheffield definition, and closer to an agreeable definition of a Birmingham metropolitan area. I understand that the Centre for Cities did this to have a unified definition of city size across all their data (and defining city size is extremely difficult) but when talking about the number of jobs in a city it is probably more reasonable to talk about the metropolitan area rather than the urban area, as the metropolitan area is the functional economic region surrounding a city rather than just the built up area.

As such, I analysed the data again using a (somewhat subjective) metropolitan area definition of all the cities, and came up with a pretty different list:

  • Bristol: 0.55
  • Nottingham-Derby: 0.49
  • Liverpool-Birkenhead: 0.48
  • Newcastle-Sunderland: 0.47
  • Leeds-Bradford-Huddersfield-Wakefield: 0.46
  • Manchester-Wigan: 0.45
  • Birmingham: 0.43
  • Sheffield-Doncaster-Barnsley: 0.40

Defined this way, Sheffield is very much right at the bottom of the list. Leeds has also tumbled down the list from the top spot. This makes sense, as Leeds is the central economic hub of the wider West Yorkshire urban area, so more people from Bradford, Huddersfield, and Wakefield commute into Leeds than people from Leeds commute outwards due to the larger number of jobs in Leeds. Leeds – using this definition – performs far better than Sheffield due to having substantially more jobs per person without even including Wakefield, Huddersfield, and Bradford: 0.57 compared to Sheffield’s 0.43. Doncaster and Barnsley drag Sheffield down even further due to have far fewer jobs per person (0.40 and 0.32 respectively).

Barnsley Town Hall. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Essentially, it’s clear that South Yorkshire has way fewer jobs per person than any other major city region outside London and the South East.

What’s interesting about this is that Sheffield doesn’t have particularly bad levels of unemployment. 68.6 per cent of people in Sheffield are employed, compared to 63.9 per cent in Liverpool and 64.2 per cent in Birmingham. How can this be the case if there are so few jobs per person in Sheffield?

The most plausible explanation is that there are many people living in the Sheffield region but working in a different city region (most likely Leeds, Manchester, or Nottingham), meaning that South Yorkshire loses out on their potential economic productivity. Essentially, there are a large number of people resident in South Yorkshire producing value elsewhere, turning Sheffield into a kind of massive suburb for the wider north.

The jobs problem part 2: lack of financial sector jobs

The financial sector makes up 7.2 per cent of the UK’s entire GVA. This data shows that financial and insurance jobs make up only 4 per cent of the UK’s entire job market. Therefore, financial jobs contribute disproportionally large amounts to the GVA of the nation. This isn’t particularly surprising given the amounts of money being generated in the financial sector. Given this, we’d expect that cities with larger numbers of financial jobs would have larger GVAs.

The official labour market statistics on Nomis Web show that – perhaps unsurprisingly – Sheffield has a very low percentage of jobs in the financial and insurance sector (3.5 per cent). For Liverpool it’s 3.7 per cent, for Leeds it’s 5.3 per cent, and for Bristol it’s 6.2 per cent. This matches neatly with the GVA per worker statistics from Centre for Cities:

If the jobs that produce the highest GVA aren’t available in Sheffield, then it’s not particularly surprising that Sheffield’s GVA per capita is low. There’s a straightforward solution here: if we want to increase the GVA per capita of Sheffield, then we should increase the number of jobs in the financial sector in Sheffield. As the education data shows, there are plenty of people living in the city who have the qualifications to perform this kind of work; they just lack the jobs.

The jobs problem part 3: lack of knowledge intensive jobs

Sheffield has a remarkably low number of jobs in the so-called “private knowledge intensive business services sector”. These are the jobs that pay well, attract graduates, and drive economic performance. They require university-level training, intelligence, and many other graduate-level transferrable skills. Here’s the Centre for Cities data tool list of the proportion of these types of jobs in the various cities:

  1. Bristol: 18.97
  2. Birmingham: 12.04
  3. Leeds: 11.48
  4. Manchester: 10.84
  5. Newcastle: 10.42
  6. Nottingham: 10.19
  7. Liverpool: 9.56
  8. Sheffield: 8.29

Sheffield really is in a league of its own at the bottom there. This is all the more surprising given that Sheffield has two large and well performing universities, and retains a large number of graduates (as noted by the Centre for Cities; see the section under “Box 3: City case studies” here). We have a strange situation where graduates are apparently willing to stay in Sheffield despite the poor quality of jobs on offer.

The Diamond building, The University of Sheffield. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This actually gels with my own personal experience of Sheffield. I know a large number of people who came to the city to study, loved it here, and were desperate to find some way of sticking around after graduation. Eventually, however, many of them have since been forced to leave (mostly to London) in order to pursue their careers, due to the poor quality of jobs on offer in the city. Admittedly, this is almost certainly the case across the wider north (due to London’s propensity to suck up all the talented graduates from the rest of the country), but the situation seems to be worse in Sheffield.

The sad reality is that Sheffield appears to be a city of graduates toiling away in bars, call centres, and crappy temp office jobs, desperate to work something more substantial. This is a bad situation for everyone, including both graduates and employers. There is a largely untapped graduate job market in Sheffield that employers don’t seem to know exists. This is harming the city’s economy and harming potential profits for companies who could be utilising this workforce.

My suggested solution: stop putting Sheffield down

One of the most common things I hear from non-Sheffielders after visiting the city for the first time is that it’s “surprisingly nice”. This might sound like a veiled insult, but it’s not (at least, I really hope it’s not).

The sad reality is that people just don’t expect Sheffield to be a nice place, and the pleasant reality often surprises people. The most famous depictions of the city in popular media are probably in The Full Monty and Threads, two films that depict the grim, post-industrial period of Sheffield’s history when unemployment was extremely high and the city was grimy, mostly derelict, and generally unpleasant.

The city is famous for steel production (and its subsequent decline), being blown up in a fictional nuclear attack, the Arctic Monkeys, and little else. It has very low levels of tourism (lower levels than even Reading and Leicester) and no famous architecture. Until recently, Sheffield didn’t even have a proper airport. On the plus side, Doncaster Sheffield Airport is now the fastest growing airport in the UK, so there’s that.

And – as I pointed out earlier – it’s not a particularly impressive city to look at. There are some lovely buildings and great new developments here and there (and it has easily one of the nicest first impressions of a city for those arriving by train), but the city centre just doesn’t feel as grand and booming as Manchester or Leeds.

This all contributes to this feeling of being strangely forgotten, despite being one of the largest cities in the country. It’s a really strange situation to be in. There are a lot of well-educated and able people in this city who are unable to produce what they could be producing due to a lack of good jobs here.

If we can work to inspire confidence in the city and make it a more desirable place in the public consciousness, then maybe more companies will be willing to open in Sheffield – and maybe some of them will create some knowledge intensive jobs, tapping into the under-utilised graduate market here.

Andrew Hirst blogs as The Northern Urbanist, where this article was first published.

This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.
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