Hallamshire Historic Buildings is gravely concerned at the abrupt cancellation of the public consultation on the proposed Castlegate Conservation Area. Until very recently, Council officers and some Councillors were looking forward enthusiastically to finally getting this process off the ground. A public event was due to be held on Thursday and Friday 21st and 22nd February in the Old Post Office in Fitzalan Square, one of the city’s finest historic buildings and a great advertisement for the contribution such buildings can make. This was announced to Councillors at very short notice late on Wednesday, but the following day a notice appeared on the door saying that it had been cancelled. This unfortunate decision was apparently taken at a senior level. No explanation has been offered.
Sheffield City Council is establishing a track record of making positive statements on heritage while their actions speak of a very different agenda. A year ago, the Council’s City Centre Plan was promising to designate a Conservation Area, with a chapter extolling the heritage of the Castlegate area and its potential benefits. This was reinforced by Julie Dore’s strong statement that “the best global cities use their heritage and history to establish energetic, 21st century versions of themselves”. The document was otherwise silent on heritage, and this latest U-turn can only increase the perception of Sheffield as a local authority that is at best confused about the role of its built heritage and at worst hostile to it.
One has only to look at the Kelham Island and Cultural Industries Quarter Conservation Areas to see the positive effect they have on the economy, the environment and social cohesion. The economic benefits are measurable: homes in Conservation Areas command a price premium, and demand is high. The effect is even more marked in the most distinctive areas that have retained more historic buildings. Research shows that a majority of people take pride in their local heritage, believe it makes their area a better place to live, and find it important for their personal sense of identity. A huge majority found that heritage-led regeneration improved their perceptions of their local area and the wider town. At the same time, the additional planning controls can help to manage price and design to create more sustainable communities.
The Castlegate area is particularly vulnerable because of the removal of the markets and the decline of shopping. Some buildings are protected by listing, but there are also many fine unlisted historic buildings, from rare early 19th century survivals in Haymarket and Dixon Lane to the splendid Old Coroner’s Court on Nursery Street, which we recenly campaigned to save. At present, any of these can be demolished at two weeks’ notice. A Conservation Area would ensure that changes are properly assessed through the planning process, making the most of the area’s character and promoting sympathetic development on the many vacant sites.
Following the success of Kelham Island, the Castlegate area is now a prime target for developers. Given the role of heritage in Kelham Island’s success, it would be incredibly short sighted to believe a developer free-for-all is now appropriate for Castlegate. A statement from Sheffield City Council explaining the decision to cancel the Conservation Area consultation is now urgently required.
Modern cities can only compete by being unique and distinctive. Failing to protect and re-use historic buildings means losing that distinctiveness. Successful cities have guarded their heritage and ensured new developments make the most of it. If Sheffield will not do the same it will be left in a race to the bottom, struggling to compete alongside other clone towns.