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Here's how Sheffield Council should save The Leadmill

While it might be challenged in court, a compulsory purchase order is the strongest tool we could use to protect this iconic space from what amounts to a hostile corporate takeover.

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Indie band Easy Life playing at the Leadmill in 2021.

Sahar Ghadirian.

Unlike Leeds and Manchester city centres—developers’ paradises with row-upon-row of high-rise office and apartment blocks—Sheffield isn’t a place that measures success through growth for growth’s sake, nor in the number of Prêt à Mangers per square mile.

Sheffield’s future won’t be found in subservience to the whims of property developers. What makes our city distinctive is its vibrant, independent cultural sector. That’s why the news that the Leadmill’s landlords want to evict them in 12 months is so concerning.

The Leadmill is an enormous cultural asset for Sheffield and core to the continued cultural and economic development of the city. It’s been a cornerstone of our city’s cultural offer for decades, drawing visitors in from across the country and launching the careers of too many artists and musicians to list.

It’s hard to imagine that a soulless rebrand by some London-based landlord and his billionaire backers would offer the same pull.

The arts and culture sector was hit hard by the pandemic, even more so in South Yorkshire than anywhere else in the country. With it being so fundamental to Sheffield’s identity, we need to see our Council, Mayoralty and Government do all they can to protect our cultural industries and help them to flourish. While it’s been great there have been specific Covid-19 recovery funds for the arts, the Leadmill’s situation demonstrates the need for more direct interventions to keep vulture capitalists at bay.

A compulsory purchase order (CPO) is a legal power local authorities can use to acquire land without its owners’ consent—if there is a compelling case in the public interest to do so.

Except for national projects like HS2, compulsory purchase powers have been underused in recent years. But we should see them as a key tool for councils, as they would let us buy out land or buildings that are key to a city’s future.

Where CPOs have been used, it has usually been with a view to clearing what’s already there and building anew, often for new housing developments or infrastructure. But we should think of buying a building to maintain it as just as important an intervention in shaping Sheffield’s course.

The battleground to determine the future of the Leadmill offers a clear example of where we should consider using compulsory purchase. The Council buying out the building, and renting it out back to Leadmill’s management, would help to guarantee a sustainable future for the venue as is.

A publicly-owned entertainment venue wouldn’t be without precedent. Back in the 1980s our Council owned a municipal cinema, The Anvil. And as Sheffield Star Editor Nancy Fielder notes, when the Leadmill was first set up, it was supported by the Council, as a non-profit co-operative to aid young musicians. Bringing the Leadmill back into municipal ownership would help it remain a space to support and develop musical talent for years to come.

Using a CPO would not be without controversy. While in my view there is clearly justification for compulsory purchase—the continuation of a strong, independent cultural sector is in the public interest—when the landlord is partnered with the billionaire owners of River Island, any attempt to save the site would certainly face legal challenge.

Luckily, because this is over the future of a focal point for the UK music scene, the Leadmill isn’t short of famous, and wealthy, friends. Billy Bragg, The Pogues, Kaiser Chiefs, Nish Kumar, Joe Lycett and many more have come out to oppose the landlord’s actions. The Council could liaise with all of these to see whether they would be willing to underwrite any financial risk over using a CPO. What would be a small cost for entertainment high-flyers could be a lifeline for the future of Sheffield’s music scene.

Sheffield Council should seriously investigate a compulsory purchase order to bring the Leadmill back into municipal custodianship, to secure its long-term future and protect our city’s cultural sector.

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