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realistic regeneration

Sheffield is aiming to become the north's biggest cultural and commercial mecca. At the centre of this drive is Sir Hugh Sykes, previously chair of Sheffield Development Corporation, who is aiming to put the heart back into the city by kenneth powell. pho

Forty years ago, Sheffield was seen as a pioneer among British provincial cities for its record in commissioning outstanding modern architecture.

If Sir Hugh Sykes has his way, the spirit of the '60s will be rekindled as part of a campaign to re-equip the city to compete in the urban stakes in the twenty-first century.

Sir Hugh, knighted in 1997, is the chairman of the Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust, which runs Pringle Richards Sharratt's new Millennium Galleries (see pages 26-34), a building which itself exemplifies the qualities he looks for in the Sheffield architecture of the future.

He is also deputy chairman of Sheffield One - one of three pilot urban regeneration companies set up by the government in the aftermath of the Urban Task Force report - and someone with enormous clout in the city and surrounding region.

The new Millennium Galleries and forthcoming Winter Gardens are the key components in Sheffield One's Heart of the City project, which aims to reinvigorate the city centre. Ironically, the legacy of the '60s is a mixed blessing for Sheffield - intrusive roads and poor-quality commercial development took the gloss off the heroic vision of modernity. The opening of the Meadowhall Centre on the edge of the city seriously undermined its retail base, but the prime cause of Sheffield's woes was the economic decline of the surrounding region from the 1970s onwards.

In a couple of decades, coal and steel, the foundations of South Yorkshire's economy, were decimated. 'We need to create more office jobs in the city centre, ' says Sir Hugh.

'That is the most urgent priority. The shops, restaurants and all the rest will follow on.'

Meadowhall, he argues, is actually an asset to Sheffield: 30 million people visit it each year. The city centre needs to be developed as a complementary attraction, with more specialist shops, places to eat and drink, appealing public spaces and cultural amenities. In the days of 'old' Labour, when Sheffield was the heart of the 'socialist republic of South Yorkshire', the local authority focused funding and ideas on deprived communities. The city centre declined still further - and a doctrinal opposition to the private car, Sir Hugh concedes, did not help.

'We've got excellent public transport, which we need to maintain, but we can't afford to deter car users - even Leeds, which is a highly successful city, with growing employment, has a realistic policy towards car use.'

Sir Hugh, while of solid Yorkshire stock, was actually born in Bristol. After local grammar school and Cambridge, he trained as an accountant. It was his career that brought him to the north. His second career, as he puts it, involved the creation of a group of specialist engineering companies, which he sold off.

He remains prominent in the world of business, as chairman of Yorkshire Bank, for example. Sheffield honoured him a few years ago by electing him Master Cutler - 'a sort of industrial lord mayor'. The post was created 350 years ago and is still restricted to those with connections to steel or cutlery. Sir Hugh loved the social and ceremonial aspects of the job, but relished even more the influence it brought. He is someone with an enormous determination to get things done.

'My family tended to be involved in good causes, as teachers and parsons, and I decided that I wanted to contribute something positive to the public sector, ' he says.

Sir Hugh's term as chairman of Sheffield Development Corporation (SDC) saw him identified as the enemy by some elements in the local authority - the Labour council saw the corporation as a Thatcherite intruder, but eventually worked with it towards the common good. He remains proud of what the SDC achieved. 'We took a derelict area, the Don Valley, and made it a centre for thriving businesses, ' he says. Not all the new architecture there was as good as Sir Hugh might have liked, but the general standard was high - 'there were plenty of occasions when we threw out second-rate schemes and told the developers to do better'.

Convinced that lasting regeneration is social and cultural as well as commercial, Sir Hugh tried to entice the Royal Armouries museum to the Don Valley. 'They went to Leeds because they got a better offer, ' he concedes. 'It's as simple as that.'

Hearing that the V&A's idea of opening a northern operation in Bradford had proved abortive, he approached the museum with a view to it opening a branch in the SDC's area.

The site shifted to the city centre, but the project blossomed. Although the connection with the V&A is much looser than originally envisaged, the Lottery-funded Millennium Galleries have opened with a stunning display of star objects from the museum in South Kensington.

The independent Galleries and Museums Trust was set up by the local authority in 1998 to manage five of the city's museums.

Its trustees include representatives of local business and academia as well as members of the council - now controlled by the Liberal Democrats.

Sir Hugh sees its mission as re-examining the entire role of museums in the city.

'Museums need to understand what the community wants and expects of them, ' he explains. 'They can't be static.' A major revamp of Sheffield's Mappin Gallery is in the pipeline - one idea is to make it a flagship of educational activity, a place where teachers will be queuing up to book visits. Traditional museums face heavy competition, of course, from new attractions such as Magna, a few miles down the road in Rotherham - a Lottery-funded attraction that is being tipped to succeed where the Earth Centre, another South Yorkshire project, failed.

The Millennium Galleries, fortunately, do not need to generate huge numbers of visitors to remain open. 'Obviously we need to keep to a budget, but it's a realistic one, ' says Sir Hugh. As for the Branson Coatesdesigned Pop Music Centre, now closed and up for grabs, it seems, Sir Hugh 'would love to tackle it - seeing it empty is an embarrassment to the city'. What others regard as a problem, he sees as a resource.

That's the kind of attitude that could turn the vision of regeneration into reality.

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