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A Magazine for Sheffield

What are the neighbourhoods of Sheffield and why are they crucial to the city's emerging future? We're finding out

Turning our attention to neighbourhoods is most radical way we can challenge the centralisation of power in England. Mapping Sheffield's neighbourhoods is just the start, writes Simon Duffy.

Spital hill shops 4
Rachel Rae Photography

England is possibly the most centralised country in the world. Almost all the big decisions are made in London by a tiny group of people. By international standards our local government is extraordinarily weak. Even services that we think are local, like our schools and hospitals, are actually controlled from the capital.

A report by Unlock Democracy recently concluded:

The once ‘Sovereign Council’ has essentially been undermined by a thousand cuts and blows from the centre - to its funding, autonomy, and discretion – that have affected the way in which essential services are now delivered, to the detriment of local communities.

This is a big enough issue. But the other problem that is discussed less often is that local government in the UK covers too much ground. The average population size for municipal government here is 168,000 people – more than ten times the median size for other countries. Sheffield is the third largest local authority in the country after Birmingham and Leeds, with a population of more than 550,000. In other words, Sheffield Council is trying to work for 30 times more people than the average European municipality.

There is an inevitable distance between the Council and the citizens of Sheffield, and it’s perhaps not surprising that decisions about local matters don’t always seem to pay much attention to local people, priorities, strengths or needs. Even with the best intentions, it’s hard to do a good job when the scale of things is so badly out of whack.

One approach to this problem would be to take the neighbourhoods of Sheffield more seriously. Because in my experience, Sheffield citizens are not just citizens of Sheffield – they are also citizens of their neighbourhood.

What are those neighbourhoods? Can we help make them more visible? Can we start to shift power, people, resources and decision-making into the many dozens of neighbourhoods of our city?

We believe so, and we’ve had support from NHS Sheffield to start the work of independently mapping the neighbourhoods of Sheffield by listening to what citizens think.

Tom French of Sheffield Data for Good and Data for Action is leading the project for Citizen Network Research. We’re using digital technology from the Finnish company Maptionnaire, which creates easy-to-use maps which citizens can interact with directly. We will also be running events in the real world, with real paper maps, talking to citizens about how they see their own neighbourhoods.

Sheffield map of neighbourhoods 1

Some of Sheffield’s potential neighbourhoods and their geographic boundaries.

Sheffield City Council

This work is complex. Boundaries can be fuzzy and some things – parks, rivers, commercial roads – belong to more than one neighbourhood. But we can’t begin to tackle many of the problems ahead of us, as a city and as a species, without helping people make an immediate difference where they are. This strategy has already been successfully adopted, just up the road in Barnsley.

There is huge potential in our neighbourhoods and so much already happening that deserves to be recognised and resourced. That's why I've spent much of my life challenging the centralisation of power in favour of real agency for citizens and communities. We see this work as the starting point for much bigger thinking and much bigger action across our city, laying the foundations for an upcoming collaborative, city-wide project hosted by Citizen Network, Opus and Dark Matter Labs which will explore how we can 'demonstrate' radically new systems here in Sheffield.

If you think neighbourhoods are important, or if you're just curious what the map might look like, please get involved. The Maptionnaire survey doesn’t take too long to complete (5-10 minutes) and when it’s finished we will not only publish the map, but we’ll work with citizens to start exploring how we can all do more to improve every neighbourhood in the city.

Learn more

Dr Simon Duffy is Director of Citizen Network Research, an independent Northern think tank based in Sheffield and one of the co-founders of Citizen Network, a global community working to achieve a world where everyone matters.

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