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A Magazine for Sheffield

Will the Gleadless Valley masterplan transform one of Sheffield’s poorest estates?

A proposed regeneration scheme could lead the way in combating the cost of living crisis.

Gleadless valley
Mick Knapton on Wikimedia Commons.

Soaring energy prices, on top of all the other increases, are driving many of us to the wall. It’s now heat or eat – or neither. Many of the poorest will not be heating their homes at all this winter. Despite Liz Truss freezing the cap we’ll still be paying more than double, and billions will still be going to energy companies, paid for out of our taxes. Almost everyone agrees now that climate breakdown is upon us, and we need to drastically reduce the amount of energy we use to heat our homes. The solutions are already here – we just haven’t got a government with the political will to make the changes we need.

One solution that would make a massive difference to both our energy bills and climate breakdown is to nationalise the energy industry – a policy supported by two-thirds of the population. France is on the brink of 100% government ownership of its electricity, Germany has just moved to nationalise gas, and Spain’s government supports small scale energy co-operatives. But in the absence of any proper leadership in this country, many are talking about the need for ‘retrofitting’. This means putting a stop to the money literally pouring out through our roofs, windows, doors and walls in the form of heat loss. It means finding out where the heat is disappearing with infra-red cameras, and putting in additional insulation, solar panels and plugging up all the draughty bits (mainly doors and windows). Other UK councils like Nottingham and Manchester are experimenting with heating homes through small local energy generators, powered by renewables. In other words, we need to retrofit existing homes and build new homes to a zero-carbon standard.

A ray of light: Gleadless Valley estate, south-east of Sheffield city centre and home to about 8,000 households, is to get a facelift. This September, Sheffield Council will be publishing its £90m draft masterplan after consulting residents and commissioning architects. The masterplan aims to avoid the usual traps of selling off public land and housing to private developers, and intends to raise the £90m required through publicly-controlled funding over ten years. This is an estate with extraordinary potential (among architects its as famous as Park Hill for its inspired design), but due to various poverty statistics, such as low employment and high crime rates, it’s no longer in demand as a place to live. This has led to a steady decline. But it offers an opportunity to create sustainable housing and provide skills, training, and jobs for decades to come.

So, will the project deliver? At first sight, the plan has some positive and substantial developments.

Imageedit 2 5886549983
Sheffield City Council.

The proposals include:

  • Building new housing (57% of the funding): ‘infill’ between existing homes, and ‘renewal’ by demolishing ten blocks of maisonettes to provide 197 new homes
  • Improving the remaining homes (37% of the funding): ‘remodelling’ to provide different sizes and types of home, and external ‘refurbishment’ to communal space covering 624 homes
  • Improvements to public space, such as landscaping, paths, cycleways, traffic calming and playgrounds (6% of the funding)

When it comes to retrofitting, while there’s a commitment to insulation, the masterplan is disappointingly vague. Phrases such as “contribute to reductions in CO2” are better than nothing, but in practice can mean very little. While the council has confirmed they will consult on the plans, they haven’t released any details. And there is certainly no strategic plan for including residents in whatever work does finally take place through education and training.

We spoke with local tenants to find out their priorities. There was real concern about the cost of energy and keeping their homes warm this winter. One told us:

I would love solar panels and insulation, to help with the electricity and heating bills – if people can’t afford to put the heating on, houses are going to be damper, the property deteriorates, health deteriorates.

A tenant in the Blackstock Road flats (pictured below) spoke about the wasted potential of the acres of green space around the flats:

I’d like to see people getting engaged in the empty land around the flats – allotments, food growing, raised beds, seating, nice plants. Wildflower planting on the verges. Washing lines for clothes drying outside. Nobody used the green spaces during Covid – such a lost opportunity. It would have been a life saver for some.

Other residents, low-paid single parents and people with disabled dependants, complained of their cold and leaking homes – an issue that is surely critical right now. How on earth are these people going to cope this winter? It’s clear that the plans must involve local residents, and deliver top-rate energy efficiency. What we’re not clear about is the extent to which this is being taken seriously within the proposed masterplan.

Blackstock road 3

Blackstock Road Flats.

The residents we spoke to raised two final points.

Firstly, most of the residents we met live in flats that are going to be demolished under the masterplan. But they all want to come back if they’re moved, and are keen on getting involved in community events. One of a group of refugees with British citizenship told us: “We like living here – it’s convenient for the GP, the shops and my friends are close by. The schools are very good”. Gleadless Valley is a place people like.

Secondly, there was a distance between residents and the council. A major problem with this kind of process is the attitude of the technocrats towards the people they’re catering for. There are a wealth of stories in social housing design about new zero-carbon systems not working: one classic example is the ‘Passivhaus’ design, where residents are not allowed to open the windows. This system broke down almost immediately, because this isn’t the way people actually live in this country. Any changes must be empowering for residents. One council tenant in particular expressed some frustration – and a way forward – in relation to the masterplan:

The first priority has to be training and providing jobs for local residents to go door-knocking, sitting down and explaining what the whole process will entail, how retrofitting will benefit them, the timescale, and offering practical help. And we need to start off with a series of events that will interest people – like storytelling about the estate and how we got here, cooking food from different countries, events that will bring people together – before getting into the technical stuff about the masterplan.

This is a call for Gleadless Valley to become a place where its residents are actively involved in shaping its future. If we could repeat this process nationwide, it could be a catalyst for changing the way we all relate to the environment, to the economy, and to each other.

So what could the masterplan offer the people of Gleadless Valley? A £90m investment could include:

  • Planning and funding for community events that will engage and support residents throughout the next ten years of the masterplan
  • Working with local colleges and implementing training programmes – not only in retrofitting, but in door-to-door personal engagement and support skills. This could create long-term jobs in an industry where there’s a shortage of expertise
  • Creating a strategy to roll-out zero-carbon design for housing – not only for new-builds, but refurbishments as well. The energy performance level (C) that the masterplan proposes is nowhere near zero-carbon, and the council is vague about what the building standard will be
  • Drawing up proposals to build homes that will achieve zero-carbon emissions by 2030 as the council has pledged, and include local people in the training, planning and work

We started looking at the Gleadless Valley masterplan at the beginning of 2022 from the point of view of retrofitting and sustainability, talking mainly with council tenants about what they want to see happen. Since then, the cost of living crisis has created a threat that is unimaginable for the most vulnerable. This is no longer something that our council alone can fix – but let’s not allow them to pass the buck. Can Sheffield Council join with the growing trade union movement Enough is Enough to lead the way?

Our next article will look at the proposals in detail, as well as examples from across the country where retrofitting of social housing has empowered local people and economies, such as People Powered Retrofit in Manchester and B4Box in Stockport. We’ll also be looking at the relationship between these and the growing Enough is Enough movement.

About the authors

Jenny Fortune is a Gleadless Valley ward resident, a former Senior Architect for Sheffield City Council and has taught sustainable planning and housing design at Sheffield Hallam University.

Rob Hunt worked in surveying and social housing, followed by 25 years teaching on housing related courses in colleges and universities.

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