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The Kerslake Collection | In memory of Bob Kerslake and the Civic University Commission

Bob’s legacy in Sheffield 

When Bob Kerslake first arrived in Sheffield in 1997, as chief executive of the city’s council, he faced a complex set of challenges. He found a city struggling to recover from significant deindustrialisation, having lost a quarter of its manufacturing jobs. Its traditional retail centre faced significant upheaval with the opening of Meadowhall, at the time Europe’s largest shopping mall, on the outskirts of the city. Sheffield had lost its confidence, purpose and identity, and its communities were suffering as a result.

At the time, this was a familiar story replicated across Britain’s industrial North. But while other cities, such as Leeds, responded with a private-sector-led approach to restore their fortunes, Lord Kerslake was determined to adopt a different approach in Sheffield. He was convinced that the only way to deliver a just and sustainable regeneration was to initiate this through public-sector investment.

For Lord Kerslake, regeneration was first and foremost about enhancing the lives of the city’s communities through improving their places and tackling inequity. He knew this hinged on establishing successful partnerships, and particularly through active public-sector custodianship. He was confident that improving the city’s offer through public-sector investment would in turn attract private investment and deliver an ambitious long-term vision. 

Over his subsequent decade as chief executive, Lord Kerslake worked with officers and elected members, with leaders of the council Mike Bower, Jan Wilson and Peter Moore, and with partners to transform the city. He helped attract significant resources to improve the environment, housing and schools in Sheffield’s neighbourhoods, bringing in millions of pounds from European and government funding, such as the Building Schools for the Future programme. He worked with politicians to establish area panels to provide a direct link between communities and the council, as a means of developing more responsive service delivery. He prioritised investment in public-realm schemes across the city centre, working with partners to lay the foundations for the award-winning Gold Route, which led visitors from a striking new station gateway through to an independent retail sector (Devonshire Green) and on to the University of Sheffield. The schemes included the creation of the covered Winter Garden, as well as new squares and plazas, and an axis between the city’s two universities. 

Lord Kerslake’s approach encouraged pioneers of urban regeneration to invest in the city – most notably attracting Urban Splash to take on the regeneration of the iconic Park Hill estate. He established new structures and agencies to deliver change, including the Sheffield One urban-regeneration company and Creative Sheffield, the UK’s first city-development company. 

Lord Kerslake’s approach as chief executive primarily focused on people, place and partnerships. He excelled at bringing together the main players from the public, private and business sectors into what he often described as ‘a single conversation’. His collaborative approach restored confidence and encouraged investment. When he stepped down as chief executive of Sheffield City Council in 2008, to head up the Homes and Communities Agency, he had spearheaded a transformation. 

Fifteen years on, though the mission to revitalise Sheffield has taken some knocks, Lord Kerslake’s legacy remains tangible. The crane-littered skyline that greets visitors as they step out of the station indicates the impressive scale of Sheffield’s ongoing regeneration. From the landmark £470 million Heart of the City II scheme to developments in West Bar, Kelham Island and Neepsend, the vision of a mix of retail, commercial, public-space and residential areas is rapidly being realised. 

Lord Kerslake’s early recognition of the critical role played by universities in the regeneration of their places, nurtured during his tenure as chief executive at Sheffield City Council and cemented through his later leadership of the Civic University Commission, is demonstrated through the development and commercialisation programmes of both of Sheffield’s universities. 

As Sheffield Hallam’s board chair, a position he held from 2016 to 2023, Lord Kerslake’s approach to place-based working shaped the development of the university’s distinctive procurement and delivery model, the Hallam Alliance, which is driving the current city-campus development. A collaborative partnership between the university, design and development organisations and construction firms, the Alliance is not simply reshaping the university’s campus, creating a new gateway to the city centre, but is also pioneering a new approach to the delivery of master planning. The alliance has offered significant opportunities for applied learning, including student placements and research, and has also prioritised local supply chains throughout the project, supporting skills development and boosting the local economy. 

Sheffield University’s campus masterplan has similarly focused on unlocking public-realm potential, embedding sustainability and aligning with the Gold Route vision for building cohesion and connection across the city.

Outside the city centre, the two universities’ expanding research assets are also making a significant impact. Sheffield Hallam University’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centres, National Centre of Excellence in Food Engineering and collaborative research assets in Olympic Legacy Park have been integral in attracting levelling-up investment into one of the most deprived areas of city. Similarly, just beyond the city’s borders, the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, which opened in 2001, has attracted more than £260 million in private-sector investment, creating 600 jobs in its first 20 years of operation, and attracting an £80 million manufacturing project with Boeing.

From a regional perspective, Lord Kerslake’s advocacy of the potential benefits of city-region working and his determination to instigate collaboration between neighbouring councils prefigured the creation of the South Yorkshire Combined Mayoral Authority, which in 2023 spearheaded the successful bid for what was the UK’s first Investment Zone, in South Yorkshire, attracting £160 million of government funding. 

Lord Kerslake’s approach to building city-wide resilience is echoed in Sheffield’s recent co-creation of the City Goals project, which aims to provide a 10-year roadmap for a transition towards a sustainable and equitable future for all who live, work and study in the city. Forged through a series of collaborative conversations and consultations across Sheffield, the project echoes Lord Kerslake’s compelling articulation of how deeply intertwined the fortunes of a city’s communities, key anchor institutions and businesses are. 

Lord Kerslake’s focus on delivering long-term change through people, place and partnerships continued throughout his career, and marked him out as one of the leading public servants of his time. His belief in the public sector’s accountability as active custodians of their place underpinned his leadership of the 2018-2019 Civic Universities Commission. As chair of the boards of two of Sheffield’s key anchor institutions – Sheffield Hallam University and Sheffield Theatres Trust – he challenged both to articulate clearly their civic agendas through collaboration with key partners across the city and the region. 

Sheffield Hallam’s civic commitments are embedded throughout its mission: ‘We transform lives.’ As leader of the Civic University Network, Sheffield Hallam was one of the first universities to develop a Civic University Agreement, and it continues to lead the civic movement in higher education through its leadership of the National Civic Impact Accelerator. 

The impact of both universities’ place-based initiatives has been significant in recent years. It was particularly important following the economic shock of the Covid pandemic, when the universities collaborated with civic partners to help stimulate the city and the wider region’s recovery. Initiatives included the Sheffield Innovation Programme, jointly led by the two universities, which helped companies to transform their business models in response to the crisis, so that they remained sustainable. And Hallam’s ScaleUp 360 business-incubation project, developed in partnership with The Business Village @BarnsleyBIC and East Midlands Chamber, offered advice and support, enabling businesses and entrepreneurs to scale their ventures sustainably. 

Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional, Economic and Social Research, which leads policy research on developing understanding of the impact of social and economic disadvantage on people and places, works closely with the local and combined authority, and alongside University of Sheffield researchers, evaluating the policies and programmes needed to revitalise communities and providing the evidence base critical to securing regeneration funds. This collaborative approach was critical in Sheffield’s recent successful Future High Street Fund bid, which is leading to the transformation of Fargate. 

Over the next decade, leveraging these civic partnerships will be a critical ingredient in the city’s strategy, in order to address the social, economic and environmental challenges we face. 

Sheffield’s two universities and Sheffield City Council recently joined other civic, health and business leaders in the regional Mayoral Economic Advisory Council (MEAC), focused on boosting economic activity and developing a framework for sustainable growth. Part of the MEAC’s remit is to challenge how things are currently done across the region. As Lord Kerslake was aware, competing priorities and institutional insecurities often undermine the efficacy of even the most determined partnerships. 

For Sheffield’s universities, operating in a highly competitive sector, a recent commitment to develop a joint Civic University Agreement is in part a response to this challenge, signalling a commitment to improving collaboration between two of the city’s biggest employers and educators. Positive as this is, the reality of the higher-education sector’s financial challenges threatens to undermine the capacity of all universities to collaborate in pursuit of civic purpose. At the same time, chronic underfunding has left England’s councils facing a funding gap of £4 billion over the next two years, forcing many to retract spending priorities, so as to protect vital frontline services.

For these reasons, Sheffield in 2024 faces difficulties that are arguably as severe as those that Lord Kerslake encountered when he took the helm of the city council 27 years ago. There is perhaps greater energy and dynamism, stronger and more cohesive leadership and an optimistic drive for regeneration, but it is against a backdrop of severe challenge. This challenge is the greater fiscal constraints across the wider public sector, triggered by the triple whammy of Brexit, the energy crisis and acute inflationary pressures.

As Lord Kerslake realised in the 1990s, the key to sustaining the course of Sheffield’s regeneration is working together: effective collaborative not just between the leadership of the city’s key anchor institutions, including the political leadership of the council and mayoral combined authority, but also with the voluntary and community and business sectors, regional and central government. Sheffield City Council’s new council plan is explicit in its commitment to partnership working. It describes itself as a convenor with the mission: ‘Together we get things done.’ But it also acknowledges that this will sometimes require knowing when to step back where others are best placed to deliver the change needed. The city’s difficulties demand sustained, open-minded and generous collaboration.

University assets will continue to be vital in that endeavour. Sheffield’s two universities’ critical role in developing the city and the region’s knowledge-led, skills-based economy is reflected in their collaboration with the council and combined authority on the launch of the Government’s first policy campus. The campus, launched in 2023, aims to create a hub of core policy jobs outside London, attracting talent by offering a range of pipelines into and through civil-service careers. Given that the city is already the largest policymaking centre outside the capital – it is home to around 1,000 policymakers and leadership of national policies – it is a project with significant potential to underpin national policy development with regional experience. 

As one of the largest health-education providers in the UK, with 58 per cent of its health and social-care students coming from the Yorkshire and Humber region, Sheffield Hallam is strongly positioned to drive better-informed policymaking in health education. This is urgently needed to secure the workforce required to meet the healthcare needs of a growing, ageing population. From collaborating with local further-education providers to better articulate the range of health and social-care career pathways, to working with NHS trusts to explore the support they need to make the release of staff for apprenticeships more sustainable (for example, whether changes to the apprenticeship levy will allow trusts to backfill the working hours lost to release for study), leveraging these partnerships will be critical in realising the Government’s ambitious targets in the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan. 

Sheffield Hallam’s role as a thought leader on health-education policy, in addition to the complex intersections with other policy areas (for example the impact of climate change on health and prosperity) aligns with the priorities of local and regional authorities. The university’s research and innovation activities are linked to improving health, wellbeing and prosperity and driving the sustainable, inclusive growth that Sheffield needs. Recent awards from Yorkshire Cancer Research and Nuffield Health, supporting the continuation of the Sheffield Hallam University-led Active Together programme and exploration of improvements in cancer-agnostic pathways, are two examples of the enormous social benefits of the university’s applied research approach. The recent creation of the Yorkshire and Humber Policy Innovation Partnership is a further example: it will harness the research strengths of the region’s 12 universities with the efforts of residents, councils and businesses. The aim is to accelerate those innovations needed to confront the challenges of climate change and widening inequalities. It will also, perhaps, provide an excellent illustration of the potential impact of concentrating the civic purpose of universities at a regional level.

From an urban-policy perspective, as a leading light in the Core Cities UK alliance – a network of 11 cities working in partnership to unlock the potential of the UK’s city regions – there is no doubt that Sheffield is reasserting itself. Sheffield’s strong legacy of applied innovation, a legacy woven into the history of the city and which Lord Kerslake championed during his tenure at Sheffield City Council, is reflected in the council’s 2024-28 plan, and is heavily contingent on the research capabilities of the city’s universities. 

The council has prioritised the city’s Innovation District through cross-sector partnerships, inward investment in Sheffield University’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and the development of research assets on the Olympic Legacy Park, including Sheffield Hallam University’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre. This work is laying the foundation for the city’s ‘innovation spine’, to foster collaboration across innovation, research and technology. The spine is conceived as a mechanism to stimulate commercialisation, creating new business, jobs and ‘good’ growth, and was cited as a best-practice case study in the 2023 UK Urban Futures Commission report, co-authored by the Royal Society of the Arts and Core Cities UK in 2023. As individual partners of the Innovation District grapple with their own budgetary constraints, the challenge will be to sustain the shared leadership and accountability required to realise this ambition. 

There are obviously many challenges to sustaining the course of Sheffield’s long-term regeneration strategy. For local-authority leaders, the legacy of funding constraints, with Sheffield City Council’s budget now halved in real terms compared with 2010, means that it faces greater challenges in delivering services and providing leadership than in 1997. Similarly, the city’s two universities will need to balance their joint civic agenda with their broader strategic objectives. Another economic shock on the scale of the Covid pandemic would clearly derail some of the progress made, though improved collaboration forged through the global crisis has sharpened institutional commitment to building city-wide resilience. 

Despite the challenges, Sheffield has a strong network of engaged and enthusiastic people working together to build a positive future. From civic leaders and politicians to heads of educational institutions and community leaders, there is a determined coalition collaborating to regenerate the city and create a more prosperous and equitable future for all who live there. Lord Kerslake’s tripartite foundation of people, place and partnerships has proved resilient, particularly with the additional focus on prosperity and planet, s reflected in the core policy drivers of the council’s plan. 

Every generation of leaders faces novel challenges, of course. But, equally, every generation of leaders builds on the experiences of those who came before. In an uncertain financial and political context, in a country dealing not just with the policy questions posed by low productivity, rising social costs and deep inequality, but also the global challenges of climate change and geopolitical instability, the underlying principles of people, place and partnerships are as important as ever. 

Rebecca Varley and Professor Liz Mossop and Kate Josephs CB

Estimated Read time: 14 Mins

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