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A city for new labour Following its days as 'the socialist republic of South Yorkshire' with associated heroic architecture, Sheffield suffered a Thatcherite slump. Now it is being recreated in the sp

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Stepping out of Sheffield Midland station and seeing the sun bouncing off Branson Coates' pop music centre, the thought strikes you: could this be the Bilbao of the uk? The comparison is not so far-fetched. South Yorkshire, like the Basque country, has suffered from the decline of its traditional industries - notably mining and steel - which has spawned deep-rooted social and environmental problems. In decentralised Spain, however, the Basques have been given the power and the money to tackle those problems. South Yorkshire, in contrast, has been the victim of the bullying and indifference, by turn, of hostile London politicians - though when Paddy Ashdown lashed Sheffield as a 'rotten borough' recently, he struck a raw nerve with New Labour, itself committed to the cause of the city.

During the modern era, architecture and politics have been more closely intertwined in Sheffield than in any other major regional centre. The city was a natural stronghold for Labour. Known as a centre of cutlery and tool-making, and hence of small crafts workshops, since the Middle Ages, it developed a large-scale steel industry during the second half of the nineteenth century. In comparison with, say, Manchester or Leeds, Sheffield has relatively few distinguished Victorian buildings. The town hall was not built until the 1890s and is a fussy and rather unmemorable, if lavish, affair. The cash was spent on the mansions of steel magnates and cutlers. When the ruling class began to acquire a social conscience, towards the end of the nineteenth century, and the age of democracy loomed, Sheffield became something of a leader in the public housing field. In the post-1945 period, with Labour firmly in control, the rebuilding campaign - Sheffield had suffered considerable war damage - was renewed. In 1953 J L Womersley became city architect and proceeded to recruit bright young men to work for him - they included Andrew Derbyshire, who designed the new Castle Market, Jack Lynn, and Ivor Smith, the last two being in charge of the monumental, 'streets in the sky', Park Hill project.

With the backing of the Conservative government, Park Hill was begun in 1956 as the new home of 3500 people. Pevsner admired its bravura, but predicted that it would eventually become a slum. After some years of uncertainty, when the spectre of demolition was raised, the local authority is apparently committed to retaining and refurbishing the estate, which English Heritage wants to see listed. The government, like its predecessor, seems afraid to take this momentous step.

During the Womersley era, Sheffield was applauded by social commentators and architectural critics alike. 'No other English city except London can show so impressive an architectural record,' wrote Pevsner in 1959. But the commercial architecture built during the 1960s was generally as dire as that of any other large uk city (Cole Brothers' store by yrm was a notable exception.) It was the public sector that excelled: housing, schools, and the new university buildings by Gollins, Melvin & Ward - though the rejected university scheme by the Smithsons has remained one of the great unbuilts of modern architectural history. gmw's 20-storey Arts Tower (completed in 1965) is a major landmark, even if the appropriateness of the Miesian tower form to teaching and research remains doubtful. More local landmarks were created in the form of a group of outstanding churches by Basil Spence and the (still undervalued) York-based specialist George Pace. rhwl's Crucible Theatre, opened in 1971, was a pioneering design, intended to emulate the much-admired Nottingham Playhouse.

The confidence of these years was quickly dissipated when the Thatcherite revolution hit Sheffield. The denationalised steel industry was rapidly 'rationalised' and up to 30,000 jobs vanished. Other related industries declined or moved out - even David Mellor transferred his operations across the border into Derbyshire. The collapse of the South Yorkshire coal industry was another massive blow. Thatcherism swept away the legacy of a long period of municipal socialism, including the low-cost, integrated public transport system. Part of the city, centred on the Don Valley and its steelworks, was taken out of the local authority's planning control and placed in the hands of the Sheffield Development Corporation. Even before the sdc - which left a rather mixed architectural legacy - came into being, planning permission had been given for the Meadowhall Centre, close to the M1. Designed by Chapman Taylor, this vast PoMo shopping complex hit city-centre retailers hard. The new tram system - recently sold at a knockdown price of £1 million to Stagecoach - funnelled shoppers into Meadowhall. Its cost, and that of the 1991 World Student Games, pushed the city in the direction of insolvency and shook Labour's hold on the council - much to the glee of the Tory government and other critics of 'the socialist republic of South Yorkshire'. The Hillsborough stadium disaster further coloured the poor image of a city which seemed to be hitting rock-bottom.

For a decade or more, Sheffield has drifted but there is a new confidence in the air. While it may lack the lawyers, civil servants and media folk of Leeds and Manchester, Sheffield has a strong tradition of creativity and sheer graft. The Full Monty made the place look grim, but it also celebrated those virtues. Architecture, it is clear, has an important role to play in redefining Sheffield for the twenty first century. Architects like Nigel Coates and John Pringle are enthused by the open-mindedness and radical tastes of a new generation of clients in the city. But grand gestures, in the Park Hill or Meadowhall mode, are out. The priority is to make the city work, not to remake it, and the force behind change will be private capital, supplemented by the lottery and other public sources, including the eu. Sheffield could become the classic New Labour city.

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