Autophagic cities

Monday, January 16 2023

Sheffield is a gorgeous city. Its hills undulate and standing beside your bike on top of one of the crests you can see the houses tessellate across the valley. Like all great cities, Sheffield is built on seven hills and many parts of the city are within an hour’s walk of the Peak District, one of the UK’s greatest National Parks. The people of Sheffield are lovely and kind, even by the standards of the North and with so many parks Orwell couldn’t be more wrong in calling Sheffield the ‘ugliest town in the Old World’1. Not done yet, Sheffield is one of the Tree Cities of the World and even home to the world’s oldest football club2.

Yet with all that magnanimous beauty and intangible wealth, I would still bet against Sheffield. The ‘city of steel’ has barely any private industry following the demise of metallurgy in the UK. Sheffield has a smaller population than it did in 1951, and today has less than half the GDP per capita of London3. Walking around town it’s hard to see much business besides hairdressers, restaurants, and small shops. This is not enough to sustain a city of over half a million. Over 30% of the working population of Sheffield is employed by the public sector, compared with 14% for London - in a country infamous for its centralised decision-making and budget-casting.

My belief is that cities with greater private sectors have more self-determination ceteris paribus4. Greater private sectors means that workers wages and the local economy are less at the mercy of the current mood of politics. The UK is particularly centralised, and has largely in the last two decades followed fiscal conservatism and economic sensibility. Towns like Sheffield which largely comprise of workers in the public sector have been unfairly damned. Appropriately, Sheffield council is seething in their 2022/2023 Revenue Budget, noting a 29% real terms cut in spending power since 2010 of over £200m. Removing council tax, Sheffield now receives almost 50% less from Westminster in the same time period.

This is unsustainable. The power to make budget decisions should lie with local authorities, but cities cannot exist as dependents. All cities outside London have weak bargaining power, but the Scousers, Weegies, and Mancunians have slightly more choice in determining what they value and invest in. Sheffield should view each tipping of the scales further into the public sector a failure, and despite all it’s wonderful beauty, I would not hesitate to bet against its future.

  1. The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937. ↩︎

  2. Tower Hamlets and Ealing, two distinctively non-cities, are also Tree Cities of the World so pinch of salt and all that. ↩︎

  3. London has a GDP per capita of £54,700. Sheffield has a GDP per capita of £25,100. Bertrand Russell said that ‘the mark of a civilized human is to be able to look at a column of numbers and weep.’ ↩︎

  4. Of course, the greatest determiner of a city being able to change under the changing will of its people is land and housing regulation. ↩︎