Parts of Sheffield are under review. The future of ex-factory buildings on Sidney Street and the shops at the top edge of Devonshire Street are the subject of radical planning proposals to demolish and rebuild. Sidney Street has been approved. Devonshire Street is still under consideration. The plans submitted for these sites say a lot about current trends in urban development. The decisions being made tell us a lot about our politics.

Elmsdale, the company who have kept their Sidney Street demolition bid alive by resubmitting proposals, describe these structures as “partially vacant” and “occupied by small scale commercial uses”. Elsewhere, when asked “Is the site currently vacant?” they ticked “yes”. Yet everywhere you look in these buildings you see enterprising people taking advantage of cheap, flexible space. In no particular order, I found: a group of musicians who have set up a budget recording studio; manufacturers of silver plated cutlery; a joinery business employing ten people; a cheap car park; more musicians; a tattoo parlour; a mail distribution company; a gym; an online gaming and gig centre; a silversmiths; and more musicians.

Walking in and around these buildings you see Sheffield’s past, present and future at work – people making, creating and sustaining the city. The approved plans will demolish the vast majority of these buildings and replace them with a mixture of accommodation and commercial space. The emphasis is on accommodation. Most current tenants said they would be unable to afford the predicted rent rise, not that there would be much space for them to use.

On Devonshire Street a different developer, Primesite, is proposing to demolish and rebuild structures that currently house The Natural Bed Company, Rare and Racy, Syd & Mallory and Rag Parade. The site would have a replica frontage but be completely new. Above ground floor commercial space, ten studio flats and four one-bed apartments are planned. The Devonshire Street plans are still under consideration but have provoked an even stronger reaction than Sidney Street. To date, over 600 members of the public have registered official objections online, more than 16,000 have signed an online petition, and even the Guardian has noticed something is amiss, covering the plans in its Northerner blog.

In the most recent development, Primesite’s architects, Coda Studios, have amended the proposals to include at least one shop unit, this in distinction to the earlier plan for all ground floor space to have either restaurant or retail potential. According to Adam Murray, Coda’s planning director, “The people have spoken and the developer Primesite Ltd, our client, has listened to their concerns.” Which is true, up to a point.

Reading through the objections you feel the tangible fear that yet another part of an English city is to be demolished to make way for buildings that almost no-one apart from the developers want. Comments speak passionately about character and heritage, while Manchester’s Northern Quarter and Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle are cited as practical examples of historic structures renovated rather than demolished. From amongst these comments a distinct mood emerges: These buildings are ours. You have no right to take them.

Yet the Council themselves are tightly bound. If the developer can meet the ‘material planning consideration’ requirements – things like pollution, disturbance, and suitable use – they get a green light. Any comments made by the public also need to appeal to these criteria. Under the current system, the Council’s main responsibility is to decide whether a proposal complies with planning law. It acts more as a legal arbitrator than a defender of the city’s identity.

There is huge variety across these sites. Some buildings are barely standing after years of neglect. Others could go on for years. To some extent, the plans take this into consideration. They talk of partial renovation and sensitive development. But the question of urban regeneration is bigger than either site under consideration here.

Large chunks of Sheffield are being bought up and sold back to us, not as factories or workshops but as city centre flats and retail space. The companies that have snapped up these structures over the last 20 years wield a disproportionate influence over how our city looks, feels and to whom it is open. Developers will do what is best for them, make money, and in certain situations they should be allowed to do it, but let’s not pretend theirs is the only claim that matters.

Good ideas are sustained by people and passion, not bricks and mortar, but demolition will make it harder to be ambitious in a city where it’s already hard enough. The companies involved need us to think these buildings are unviable and unproductive. But there is money being made here. It’s just not the right sort and not enough of it is going to the right people. For those in power the real questions raised by these buildings are not development or dereliction, enterprise or stagnation. The real questions are: Who do you want to support? In what sort of city do you want to live?

View the planning application
How to object

Laurence Peacock