Sheffield at the junction – democracy or bust?

In last week’s Sheffield Telegraph you may have read an advertising feature aiming to persuade us that a new motorway service station at Junction 35 of the M1 is just what Sheffield needs. With a promise of £200,000 a year for the Outdoor City and extra £1m in business rates, what’s not to like?

“What’s not to like” is the removal of local, democratic decision-making that this represents. Of course, after 50% cuts to its funding, Sheffield City Council is desperate for cash to prop up the services we need and love. It has slashed spending on parks and woodlands, on encouraging healthy activity, on training for jobs, street cleaning and supporting community projects – not because it wanted to, but because the money is no longer there from central Government under the austerity rules.

Many of the changes happening will be below the radar of the average Sheffield citizen. You may not know that your local community project, which has been providing IT training to help people get jobs, and Health Trainers to empower people to make healthy living choices and cope with chronic illnesses, is now making its workers redundant. You may not be aware that Sheffield, once proud of its response to refugees, and the first City of Sanctuary, had to say ‘no’ to helping more Syrian child refugees because there was no money. You may not realise that our Eco-schools programme has long since bitten the dust and all funding for helping people to reduce their carbon footprint has been withdrawn.

On the other hand, you will know that your local Library is now being run by volunteers and the Central Library is likely to be leased as a hotel. You will know that the only way Sheffield could get its potholes mended was to enter a contract that meant street trees being decimated with no real consultation. You may know that the frackers are at the doorstep of our city, poking round for a farmer willing to allow seismic testing in Harthill, Eckington, Moss Valley or Stannington. Soon we will be offered a Meadowhall extension that will increase traffic on the M1 bringing even worse air pollution to Tinsley. These developments are connected – all are by companies paying businesses rates, which will be the Council’s staple income after 2020.

So, do we any longer have a choice over what these companies do in our city? Not really, unless we are willing to challenge austerity. Twenty years ago, I got involved in a local campaign to stop a vast supermarket being built near Abbeydale Road – a Sheffield planning committee threw out the development, and chose a way forward that created less traffic and less threat to local, independent shops.  But in Lancashire when the elected Council stood up to fracking, their decision was overturned by the government. Sheffield City Councillors and Cabinet Members have intimated that they are terrified of the fines that could ensue if they stand up to fracking in our area. Our local right to decide has effectively been destroyed.

Sadly, these developments will not even solve our economic and social problems. Fracking produces few jobs, mostly filled by specialist outsiders, while bringing hundreds of HGVs through country roads, and polluting air and water with toxic chemicals. Motorway developments and new shopping areas create more traffic, which creates air pollution, killing hundreds of people in our city and ensuring Sheffield children grow up with damaged lungs.

There is an alternative, but it requires us to act together for the good of our city. Not to pander to companies offering to invest in the wrong things, but to raise our own money for projects for the public good – affordable housing that uses no energy, local electric transport and green routes for walking and cycling to enable an active, healthy population. Renewable energy to replace fossil fuels. And the education, health and care that we all deserve.  All the evidence points in the same direction, and if our decision-makers are wise, they will realise that is more important than increased business rates. As a city, we really are at the junction to choose the future we want.