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“All roads lead to Mazher”: Have favouritism and political inaction held back the regeneration of former Castle Market site?

There’s a big hole in Sheffield city centre where Castle Market used to be. Why – and what comes next? It’s a story of competing visions and political inaction, set against the backdrop of Sheaf Field, the place where our city was born.

Castle market clock

A clock at Castle Market, captured on the last trading day, 23 November 2013.

Tim Dennells

A senior and well-respected former officer at Sheffield City Council recently made serious allegations about the conduct of Labour councillor and cabinet member Mazher Iqbal.

Simon Ogden, former Head of City Regeneration and Programme Director for the Castlegate Kickstart programme, accused Iqbal of “openly associating with and supporting the interests of” private commercial parties, including property developers.

Quoted in a Star article detailing his allegations, Ogden also claims Iqbal wasted thousands of pounds of public money by delaying or cancelling planning work and public consultations, and alleges that he made interventions about planning matters on behalf of developers. Cllr Iqbal “robustly denies” the allegations.

While an internal investigation into Iqbal’s conduct is ongoing, and Council Leader Terry Fox has suspended him from his duties on the new Executive, one of the biggest projects Iqbal was involved in – the regeneration of the former Castle Market site – initially seemed to be left in limbo.

I looked into the history of the site since the market was demolished in 2015. It’s a story of competing visions and sprawling political inaction, set against the backdrop of Sheaf Field, the place where our city was born when Sheffield Castle was first built over 900 years ago.

Most importantly, I tried to get to the bottom of what’s in store for one of the largest remaining city centre development sites which is still owned by the city.

Deep history

In recent years the Castle site, formerly home to Castle Market, has attracted a lot of interest from local people.

From 2016, various parties have contributed to creative commissions and heritage projects associated with the historic location, including tours by the Friends of Sheffield Castle and visioning exercises involving the University of Sheffield’s Archaeology and Architecture departments.

In 2017 a grant of £30,000 was secured by the University and the Council to create an ‘augmented reality’ model of what the castle may have looked like and a joint ‘preliminary vision’ about the site's phased regeneration.

An impression of how Sheffield Castle could have looked Pictures University of Sheffield and Human VR

An impression of how Sheffield Castle may have looked.

University of Sheffield & Human VR

The Castlegate Partnership Steering Group – which includes the Council, South Yorkshire Police, both universities, heritage groups, traders, arts organisations, the Environment Agency and the Canal & River Trust – was also set up to steer the regeneration.

In the summer of 2018, what Ogden calls “the first ever comprehensive archaeological evaluation” was commissioned by the Council at a cost of £120,000. Some 300 volunteers were involved in the dig and associated tours and lectures attracted 15,000 online enquiries, he says.

Meanwhile, the annual Castlegate Festival drove further public interest and footfall in the area.

Conservation area consultation cancelled

From 2018 the Council began preparing a consultation about whether the wider Castlegate area should be given ‘conservation area’ status. Originally proposed in the Draft City Centre Plan of that year, this designation would have protected historic buildings including the Old Coroner’s Court and the Old Town Hall, and could have opened up significant heritage funding opportunities.

This consultation was cancelled by Cllr Iqbal the day before it was due to launch after years of work and at an estimated cost of £10,000, Ogden claims. Members of the Castlegate Partnership tell me they turned up to a planned exhibition at the Sheffield Institute of Arts building to see a note pinned to the door saying it had been cancelled.

While no reason has been given publicly for the cancellation, and Council officers were allegedly told not to make a public statement, Ogden says Iqbal objected to plans for the Castle site which included a public park – plans which were taken directly from the already-approved City Centre Plan of 2018.

In a letter to the Chair of Joined Up Heritage Sheffield, dated 19 March 2019 and seen by Now Then, Iqbal gave another possible explanation for this intervention: “I need to be very frank with you that I receive extremely vociferous challenge to some of the Council’s approaches to conservation from the development industry, many of whom will paint the diametrically opposite view to yours i.e. that the Council is far too concerned with protecting Sheffield’s heritage and that it is a barrier to development.”

Iqbal said there would be a review of all conservation areas in the city, an approach that was subsequently ruled out by the then-Leader of the Council Julie Dore.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request about the cancellation of the Castlegate Conservation Area consultation which was made to the Council on 14 October 2020 has not been answered, far exceeding the legally mandated 20-day response time.

According to Mark Smith, who filed the FOI, the Council must now respond by 20 July or they could be held in contempt of court. The Council told The Star that it’s waiting for documents from Cllr Iqbal himself before it can answer the request.

Ogden told me he personally prepared most of the documents related to this FOI request before he left his post at the Council in November 2020. “I cannot imagine what further documentation was necessary or how it could take eight months to obtain,” he said.

Mazher

Councillor Mazher Iqbal, Executive Member for City Futures, Development, Culture and Regeneration.

Castle site engagement ‘paused’

Public engagement activities around the future of the former Castle Market site itself, planned for October 2020, were also “paused for a short period” at the last minute by Cllr Iqbal in late September and have never resumed. At that point Ogden says they had already been delayed three times across more than 12 months with no explanation.

The public were due to see three different visions for the site in an augmented reality consultation exhibition, alongside a fourth allowing them to explore the historic medieval castle.

According to emails shown to Now Then, Iqbal told council officers that “the rational [sic] for a further delay has come from a number of stakeholders on the Castlegate Partnership,” but did not specify which stakeholders.

Odgen alleges there is “clear evidence of an apparent ulterior motivation” for this decision in the form of an email sent to Cllr Iqbal by Adrian Hackett, the co-founder of Kollider, whose projects include Kommune food hall at Castle House, located the next street along from the former Castle Market site. Kollider is a member of the Castlegate Partnership Steering Group.

‘Castlegate Developments LLP’

In an email seen by Now Then dated 8 September 2020 – two weeks before Cllr Iqbal suspended public engagement activities to inform the future development of the Castle site – Hackett referenced a meeting with Iqbal on 26 August and, “as requested”, laid out “a high level summary of the proposals discussed”.

The proposals appear to outline a possible legal partnership between Sheffield City Council and Kollider Ventures LLP called Castlegate Development LLP (CDLLP), focused on “the development of the old market and castle site adjacent to the River Don,” with the creation of a “visioning statement” led by Kollider.

The email also said the Council would loan CDLLP “the sum of [£500,000] to enable the design team (contracted by CDLLP) to deliver the masterplan and outline planning application”.

None of the other stakeholders from the cross-sector Castlegate Partnership Steering Group are named as partners in the proposals.

Responding internally to the email chain, one senior Council officer told colleagues it wouldn’t be possible to put Kollider in charge of the development of the Castle site without a formal competitive process, that the Council didn’t have access to “the sort of debt finance suggested”, and that “wider stakeholders would go ballistic. It undermines every commitment we’ve made.”

The email chain appears to end with the officer saying, “All roads lead to Mazher.”

exchange street castle site photo

Exchange Street, at the edge of the Castle site.

Simon Ogden says Council officers were not even aware of, or present at, a meeting between Cllr Mazher Iqbal and representatives of Kollider on 26 August – a claim which, if true, could mean that Iqbal breached the Council’s Code of Conduct.

Asked to comment on the meeting, what was discussed, and the offer of the loan, Adrian Hackett of Kollider told Now Then: “We had an idea but it was never progressed beyond being an idea and so far as I’m aware all proper protocols and procedures were followed by all parties. There’s therefore nothing to comment on.”

Cllr Iqbal did not respond to requests for comment.

Many competing visions

Minutes of a Castlegate Partnership Steering Group meeting, dated February 2019 and seen by Now Then, indicate that a proposal from Kollider to the Council called the ‘People’s Hall’ was tabled at least 18 months earlier.

The document outlines a “performance arts centre on the site of the old Castle Market [which] could include a northern presence for the London Academy of Music and Dance (LAMDA) and local arts organisations,” with a “one year exclusive option on the site”. The Council rejected the proposal.

Another member of the Castlegate Partnership Steering Group told Now Then that at a meeting in June 2019 – which they claim was the only meeting Cllr Iqbal ever attended – Iqbal outlined a vision of the site which included “an iconic, high-rise building to change the skyline of Sheffield into a globally recognisable one”.

A development of this scale might have been limited if Castlegate was given conservation area status and could also have been opposed in any public engagement activities related to the Castle site.

Cllr Iqbal did not respond to requests for comment on this alleged vision for the site.

Anthony Wood, who represents the Sheaf and Porter River Trust on the steering group and lives nearby, told me his vision for the site was as a park, “almost exclusively a public space”.

He says that when he bought his house on Bank Street, while Castle Market was still being demolished, “the Council was telling us all that it was going to be a park.”

Wood’s ideas included a climbing wall inspired by Excalibur in the Netherlands, the tallest freestanding climbing wall in the world. A later vision, produced by the Trust, features a 'climbing tower' which would double as a viewing platform for the Castle ruins.

His hopes for the site were in part supported by Council plans from 2016. After two failed bids to the Heritage Lottery Fund, and in spite of £50,000 secured from the Environment Agency to develop plans, the idea of a ‘pocket park’ called Sheaf Field did not progress. A sign at the edge of the site still talks about this ‘new urban green space’.

Sheaf Field Castlegate Park Plans pocket park

The Council's Sheaf Field 'pocket park' vision.

Yet another vision for the site was put forward by Bally Johal, who runs Thrifty Store, Bal Fashions and True Love’s at Victoria Quays.

Inspired in part by Boxpark in London, Johal says he and others worked up plans for ‘meanwhile’ use of the site in 2018. The proposals, which were fully modelled in 3D, included shipping container trader units, performance space, maker workshops, a children’s play area, a ferris wheel, an ice rink in the winter and a ‘people’s pier’ – a bridge giving access to lower levels of the site and a view of the archaeological dig of the castle's remains.

He says investors were ready to commit to a five-year trial of the project and that the Castlegate Partnership was supportive of it – but that there was little communication and ultimately no final decision from the Council.

Castle site proposals Bally Johal and Curious Nomads

3D model of a vision for the Castle site put forward by Bally Johal in 2018.

Simon Ogden says Cllr Iqbal gave an “initially enthusiastic response” to the proposals, but “then changed his mind and blocked the idea”.

This approach – of temporary, ‘bottom up’ use to stimulate interest and experiment with different formats – is supported by a 2014 presentation given in Sheffield by Marcus Westbury, founder of Renew Australia, which Ogden tells me was an early inspiration for the Castle site’s regeneration.

So what’s going on at the Castle site now?

Following Cllr Iqbal’s suspension, leadership of the project appears to have passed to the Council’s City Centre Development team, with Green councillors for the ward Douglas Johnson and Ruth Mersereau attending steering group meetings.

It was recently announced that Sheffield has submitted a £20m bid to the government’s Levelling Up Fund. If successful, the city’s bid would support the regeneration of Castlegate, a new Park Hill Art Space and the relocation of music education hub Harmony Works to the Grade 2-listed Canada House.

A presentation shown to the Castlegate Partnership Steering Group in May 2021, obtained by Now Then but not released publicly, includes a recent concept plan for the Castle site by consultants which it notes is “only indicative... developed to provide a context for the bid submission”.

Castle site draft concept plan levelling up fund june 2021

An indicative concept plan for the redevelopment of the Castle site for Sheffield's bid to the Levelling Up Fund.

The mocked-up image shows a plaza, a visitor centre, an ‘active pedestrian street’, a series of gardens including ‘sunken historical artefact gardens’, sculptures, a seating terrace and an ‘art wall’.

The bid, according to the presentation, focuses on opening up part of the Sheaf which passes through the site, making the river into a feature and creating new riverside and wetland habitats.

A press release from the Council states that “plans also include a multi-purpose space to allow students and other users to perform to the public”.

A series of buildings located around the edge of the site are not labelled, suggesting these could be subject to private development.

“A brief for the remainder of the plan will be informed by wider stakeholder engagement and is likely to include a broad mix of uses, including space for other arts, cultural and community organisations,” the presentation says.

The Council submitted its bid to the Levelling Up Fund on 18 June and expects a decision in autumn 2021. Commenting on the bid, Council Leader Terry Fox said Castlegate is a “hidden gem in the city centre with huge potential”.

Several members of the Castlegate Partnership Steering Group told me they were happy to see new leadership of the site’s regeneration.

The draft plans could be seen as a compromise between the many visions tabled so far, as they appear to offer a mixture of public and private development, incorporating green space and the opening up of the river.

But with the lack of a clear development strategy for the site and the wider Castlegate area, the million pound question is: what happens if Sheffield’s bid doesn’t succeed?

Leadership will be acutely aware of the many balances to strike on this project. The Council desperately needs new business rates income from commercial sites, but also clearly has some desire to keep spaces publicly owned and publicly accessible. It must support the many grassroots enterprises which have flourished in Castlegate – Delicious Clam, Plot 22, Girls with Drills, Fronteer Gallery and Bal Fashions, to name a few – while also bringing in new projects and stakeholders of all shapes and sizes.

Castlegate bridge tim dennell

Castlegate bridge, Waingate.

Tim Dennell

Will we get a say?

While Now Then understands there is likely to be some public engagement element to any future plans for the Castle site, the Council has not released any information regarding timescales or approaches.

The City Centre Development team did not respond to a request for more details about public engagement or a conservation area consultation for Castlegate.

And Cllr Iqbal?

Simon Odgen says that as recently as June he was told the Council investigation into the conduct of Cllr Iqbal was “paused”. In a letter to Council Chief Executive Kate Josephs, he notes that investigations are supposed to take 12 weeks, “and it has been more than 20 weeks”.

Gillian Duckworth, Director of Legal and Governance at the Council, told Now Then: “The investigation is ongoing and we do not have a timescale for its completion at this stage.

“Some investigations are complex and we are conducting a rigorous process, as quickly as possible, in order to achieve a fair and just outcome.”

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