Media Statement by Sheaf and Porter Rivers Trust
Sheaf Field Plans Passed without Public Access
But it’s Not Over Yet !
The Council’s proposals for the Castle site were approved by Planning Committee on 23rd May still showing the 2-3 metre concrete river wall, topped by a railing with no public access to the water or bank softening.
Picture 1: Current proposals
One third of the river will remain culverted under the proposals. Although council officers have indicated cautious optimism on accessing additional funding to allow this.
Three Trust representatives spoke at the meeting urging members to give the Council design team a strong steer to revisit the proposals as they relate to river renaturalistion and access. Virtually every member of the committee spoke in support of the improvements also requested by among others the Environment Agency, the Wildlife Trust and some 47 other objectors.
But the committee stopped short of passing a formal resolution to that effect on the advice of officers.
However the actual detail of the treatment of the river remains somewhat flexible as they are listed as ‘Reserved Matters’ pending a structural survey of the river walls, (astonishingly still not yet commissioned), approval by the Environment Agency and the carrying out of a Water Environment Assessment. The scheme will also not be finalised until competitive tenders have been received and the outcome of a number of additional funding bids which we have supported and all of which could change the budget situation.
Officers therefore confirmed that details could still be changed over the next two months and would welcome further discussions with stakeholders.
In the meantime, the Trust and other Castlegate Partners will continue pressing for the establishment of a transparent and accountable governance framework for the project which has been absent from the outset in spite of public promises of close co-production. We hope that the fresh leadership in the Council will seize this opportunity to demonstrate its new more open approach.
Other key issues which the Trust and other partners wish to address are:
a) What is intended for the £2.75 m allocated within the Castlegate programme to the S1 Arts project, on which there has been no evidence of progress in over a year and which therefore appears at risk of clawback unless the funding is reallocated.
b) Why pressure is still being brought to bear on the Andalus Community Centre and Frewhet Restaurant to move out of the building they have occupied for ten years adjoining the Castle site on Exchange Street despite categorical promises from senior councillors and officers to the contrary in a public committee in November 2022 ?
Picture 2: Nearby Nursery Street Pocket Park, incorporating full access to the water.
Full Statements from Trust members at the Committee are attached.
Statements made to the Planning Committee 23/05/23 on the Castle Site Proposals
As a Trustee of the Sheaf & Porter rivers trust we welcome the Council's overall proposal for the Castle site and have championed its many good features, but we are disappointed that the current application only shows around 60 % of the Sheaf deculverted.
We question this, but are willing to accept the Council's commitment to completing this element when funding bids are successful.
However we, along with the Environment Agency, Sheffield Wildlife Trust and over 50 other objectors, feel passionately that the treatment of the uncovered Sheaf fails to seize the opportunity to be truly transformative or to address urgent local, national and international policy objectives.
Sheffield is a city, whose name derives from the River Sheaf which is largely invisible as it flows underground through culverts, and is inaccessible and hidden in deep channels
If it matters for communities to feel connection with the place where they live, with their heritage, in Sheffield, our rivers, this river, is a unique part of that and being able to see the Sheaf, be beside it and possibly get in it, is something we should be encouraging, but The present proposal for this site makes this impossible
Under new regulations it is now a firm requirement to maximise bio-diversity net gain. One of the most effective ways to restore biodiversity is to repair our grossly abused urban rivers..
The provision of fish passage here makes a welcome start, but without a bolder approach, the river will remain a hostile concrete sided channel .
It is also a requirement of existing Council policies and the European Water Framework Directive
The Environment Agency’s submission on the application I quote:
' strongly recommends that the proposed development is used as an opportunity to deliver enhancements in line with the Water Framework Directive objectives. …
“the proposals submitted indicate that the existing river wall will be retained on the left bank.
We feel this is a significant missed opportunity. Where possible,we strongly recommend that the site layout is altered to incorporate a more natural ( re-graded) riverbank profile.. One option would be to create a stepped profile as part of the public amenity space that allowed for inundation during peak flow events. Having a re-graded, engineered riverbank profile, would provide greater opportunity for more diverse in channel, marginal and riparian habitat (including vegetation); whilst also providing greater opportunity for the public to connect with the river.'
The officers report does not record this very clear recommendation from the statutory river authority and part funder of the scheme.
The current proposal prioritises a level event space high above the river over maximising access, amenity, safety and wellbeing benefits. Yet consistent public support for full access to the river has featured in every public consultation return, whilst current operators such as Pollen Market and Exchange St Collective have confirmed to us that events are already well catered for both on Castlegate and in the large proposed 'Bowling Green' space.
Sheffield’s rivers are extremely popular venues for a number of different paddling experiences with increasing numbers of paddlers, and high demand for more places, such as the Don and its larger tributaries
We welcome the proposals to open up the river, provide a rock ramp and remove the obstruction to fish passage created by the Castle Orchard Weir. The proposed arrangement would facilitate paddling at many times of the year, but this valuable new asset to Sheffield’s Outdoor City offer in a high-profile location will not be possible with the current proposal which does not permit safe access to, or egress from, the restored channel
The proposed layout of the Park will allow neither visibility of, nor public access to the river at the ‘Sheaf Field’ - the place where Sheffield was born. It risks becoming a major disappointment and sets a terrible precedent for other developments along our rivers.
In the current proposal there is a concrete wall with a 2 - 3 metre sheer drop to the water - topped by a safety railing. This means no access to the river for fishing, kayaking, maintenance, safety or wellbeing. In addition, because of this, for most users, the water will not be visible. Refer to picture 1
Our engineers have designed an alternative profile with a gentle terraced slope down to water level allowing access and visibility for all including wheelchairs as shown in drawings 2, 3 and 4
With 18,000 new homes planned in the city centre, every opportunity should be taken to create useable green and blue space which offers people contact with nature.
There is currently no public access anywhere along the River Sheaf except in the privileged south west in Millhouses Park and the Totley woods. Here is a chance to demonstrate real 'environmental levelling up'
Examples of how this has been done successfully are shown at 5 (Matilda St Sheffield) and 6 (Mayfield Park Manchester also a Levelling Up project).
Please insist that officers rethink this element of the scheme.
Castlegate is a flagship site. If you don’t do it here what hope is there for future projects.
I am a Castlegate resident that lives within sight of the proposed development. I come from a background in engineering and am also one of the lead professional guides for the Hidden Rivers Tours of the Sheaf culverts. The tours start at the popular Matilda St pocket park on the Porter and finish in the Megatron culvert under Castlegate. I have therefor spent many, many hours in the space proposed for deculverting and even helped council officers, the fire departments swift water rescue team, the ecologists and the councils contracted engineers (ARUPS) with regards this space. I also have several years experience of working with Sheffield’s River Stewards to manage and clean up local rivers and have various associated qualifications.
Whilst warmly welcoming much of what the Council team is proposing on the wider site I am convinced that they fall sadly short in respect of the river for bio-diversity, public enjoyment, maintenance and public safety.
It has been claimed, without evidence or qualification, that retaining a high wall and railing is a safety feature discouraging casual access to the culverts. However, it is the opposite as people can -and do- already access these culverts from upstream and, in reality, the most dangerous thing about the Sheaf culverts is precisely that there is no safe way out of them downstream of the train station. A lowered bank at the Castle site will remove that hazard and massively help in facilitating rescue. Casual access can be discouraged by retaining deeper water in the mouth of the Megatron culvert. Maintaining the deeper water would also help to maintain viability for fish passage in areas that the current plans may render unviable. The depth of water in the channel in the ‘Megatron’ and the culverts upstream will be reduced by up to 0.5m under the current plans. A more prudent approach would be to maintain the current low flow water levels upstream of the works unless it can be shown that there is no detrimental impact.
The Sheaf was the primary focal point of the LUF bid and should be one of the main showpieces of the new park. It should be easily accessible and be visible from as much of the park as possible. Under current proposals the Sheaf will remain largely closed in by the high retaining walls and not visible from almost any of the park, leading it to not be classifiable as a Blue Space and to the loss of the majority of its potential benefits (the government defines blue spaces as “outdoor environments–either natural or manmade–that prominently feature water accessible to people”). It will also need regular management of litter, invasive species and obstructions. Under health and safety regulations this will be hugely complicated both for professionals and volunteers if access has to be by ladders rather than a low soft bank. This will substantially increase the ongoing maintenance costs and potentially preclude volunteers from being able to help at all in maintaining the river.
Very importantly, a large number of studies have demonstrated the enormous benefits in physical and mental health through regular access to blue spaces and in this post-covid era it seems outrageous not to take advantage of this opportunity to create a better green and blue space for the residents of this end of Sheffield who are woefully under catered for. The October 2020 government review of “The Social Benefits of Blue Spaces” evidenced this and also found that “blue space is associated with appreciating surroundings, longer visits, improvement of mood, and feelings of restoration to a greater degree even than Green Space.”
We have put forward an alternative design which you have before you which would allow day to day access and enjoyment of the waters edge by wildlife and people - including wheelchair users. We believe this is vastly superior to just another hard surface “events” space in an area that already caters well to events. Sheffield rightly wishes to promote itself as the Outdoor City and what better demonstration of that than to dramatically transform an inner-city wasteland into a naturalised river open for kayaking, fishing and enjoyment of nature?
Along with the EA and many others I believe the decision to omit 30% of the de-culverting from the full planning application is illogical and will add significant cost. Whilst I note the Council's commitment to bring this element forward 'when funding allows' I would like to strengthen that commitment to help avoid a tragic mistake in which a development takes place on plot 3 that then precludes the completion of the deculverting of the river. As such I am requesting an additional simple, but very important, condition which is that no development of the adjoining Development Plot 3 (between the Andalus Centre and the culvert) should be permitted to take place without the de-culverting of the river being first completed.
I am a town planner and former Head of City Regeneration for the Council with over 30 years experience in creating successful public spaces including Five Weirs Walk, Peace Gardens, Devonshire Green, South St Amphitheatre, Grey to Green and the Nursery St and Matilda St riverside parks.
I am the Convener of the Council's Waterways Strategy Group and a Trustee of the Sheaf and Porter RT with over 450 members and 2,000 supporters.
I would like to congratulate the Council's design team on many excellent features of the proposed new park. However I also urge them to use the same skill and imagination to truly unlock the River Sheaf as the accessible, visible, naturalised and useable focus of the new ‘Sheaf Field’.
We are aware that there is a current deadline on spending Levelling Up funding by March 2024 but realistically we all know this is already unachievable. Councils across the UK are facing the same challenge and it is inevitable that these dates will generally have to be relaxed.
Still we fully appreciate that there is an urgency to getting the overall project out to tender and achieving planning permission to allow that negotiation to happen.
So we are not asking for the application to be refused or unduly held up. We are asking the Committee to give the design team a strong steer to revisit the treatment of the riverside.
The officers report makes clear that there are still many unknowns around this part of the design, including a structural assessment of the decaying culvert walls, then approval of details by the Environment Agency whose strong advice you have heard, then submission of a Scheme of Investigation for the Archaeology as well as tender prices for the various construction elements and the critically the possibility of additional funding from s106, EA Local Levy, the SY Combined Authority and other sources. Only at this point will the scheme actually be finalised.
For this reason details of the landscaping, level changes and retaining structures are all Reserved Matters and will only be approved in detail over the coming months as the information I just mentioned is assembled. This means there is further time and scope to achieve the outcome which almost all consultees have demanded.
This has been acknowledged in a recent constructive meeting between senior officers and representatives of the Trust and Friends of the Castle.
To this end the Sheaf and Porter Trust has engaged two very experienced ex SCC civil engineers to draw up an alternative proposal which would deliver these outcomes, extracts of which you have before you. It has been shared with the Council team who have not raised any technical reasons why it could not be constructed.
Officers may well have advised you that these proposals are all very well but beyond the limits of available funding. We would respond by quoting the Council's own project description which can be found on their website which states:
'Importantly, The Castle project is specifically and exclusively for the deculverting of the River Sheaf and its associated public realm and landscaping, including preservation and interpretation of the archaeology.'
We believe there has been a significant scope creep on the project for reasons too complicated to go into here but which needs to be corrected by a more transparent and collaborative governance, something Castlegate Partners have been demanding for nine months. This needs to be put right urgently.
There is also a strong likelihood of underspend on at least one other component of the programme the S1 Arts project, which shows no sign of progressing in the form submitted.
In the spirit of the more listening and collaborative council which we have recently been promised we ask the committee to instruct the applicants to fully engage with the EA and other expert stakeholders to revisit the Sheaf Field details as part of the reserved matters submission.
We believe that this can turn the Sheaf Field into the truly popular and sustainable public space which Castlegate and the River Sheaf deserves.
We would also ask Committee to robustly hold officers to their commitment to complete full deculverting adjacent to Plot 3 as requested by the EA by the addition of the condition suggested by Anthony Wood.