“One side of the city centre to the other, and less than a mile. By car, I travelled 2.5 miles.”

The best map of Sheffield’s Inner Ring Road, but spoilt by spelling mistakes.

An unusual post, in so much that we are looking at a road. In fact, a series of roads that form one big one – Sheffield Inner Ring Road.

We might live in Sheffield, but sometimes it’s difficult to see wood for the trees, and this is the case with the inner ring road, because you probably don’t realise its purpose and where it is.

Let’s start in the 1930s when a route around the city centre was first proposed. Truth be known, World War Two stalled plans until the sixties, and in 1969 Sheffield Corporation published an impressive handbook called ‘Sheffield – Emerging City,’ in which plans for a detailed road system were revealed for the first time.

The council intended to pour £65m into the scheme which included bus lanes, pedestrian areas, as well as an urban motorway and motorway links with the M1.

Robert Waterhouse, writing in The Guardian in 1972, said that “Sheffield was as proud of its new roads as of its housing, its clean air, and its flourishing arts. They were all symbols of rebirth after years of stagnation among the ruins of the Industrial Revolution.”

The Guardian article, long forgotten, provides an interesting snapshot into the arguments that raged at the time.

It pointed out that after 1969, things had started to go wrong. In May 1971, a joint report by the city engineer, the city planning officer and architect, and the general manager of the transport department, had taken a gloomy view.

‘Although a large highway construction programme has been embarked upon,’ it said, ‘the growth of vehicular traffic is much greater than the growth of road capacity. The disparity has been obvious for many years and there seems negligible hope of it being ended in the foreseeable future.”

The report estimated that the proposed highway system, capable of carrying about 50 per cent of commuters to work by car, would cost ratepayers another 20p in the pound, which was probably acceptable, but that a system by which nearly everyone went by car could cost £300m, or another pound on the rates, clearly unacceptable. If the ‘compromise,’ £65m system was going to get clogged up anyway, was it worth building at all?

Arundel Gate in 1973 looking towards the Hole in the Road – new barriers erected in attempt to make pedestrians use the subways. Image: Sheffield Newspapers/Picture Sheffield

Waterhouse identified growing opposition within the council.

Sir Ron Ironmonger, Labour’s council leader, admitted that a growing number of councillors were against the scheme, and there had been public exchanges between the planning department and engineers.

The planners, headed by R. Adamson, felt that the engineers were going about the job the wrong way: instead of giving priority to the inner ring road, which everybody thought essential, construction had been advanced near the city centre. This meant that the civic circle – the inner ring road ultimately intended to carry only local shoppers and delivery vans – was being used as a throughway.

But the engineers, under K.D. Wiilliams,  replied that highways the size of the inner ring road – a six-lane urban motorway – didn’t happen overnight.

It seemed that Sheffield residents didn’t know what they were in for but would soon find out. The new interchange between the inner ring road and the Parkway was near completion at the bottom of Commercial Street. Sheffield Parkway was also being built and would be the main route into the city centre from the M1.

Construction of Sheffield Parkway in 1974 looking towards Park Square. Image: Sheffield Newspapers/Picture Sheffield
Sheaf Street/Commercial Street (latterly known as Park Square) roundabout under construction in 1973. Image: Sheffield Newspapers/Picture Sheffield

But the argument in 1971 was that traffic coming into the city centre was being diverted onto newly-constructed roads, because there was no proper inner ring road. And it was causing problems.

On Commercial Street itself, a bridge was being widened to take four lanes of traffic. It joined the civic circle at Castle Square, where traffic and pedestrians were already separated – cars at ground level, pedestrians underground. But before the road got there, it had to pass Fitzalan square, one of the principal routes for shoppers on foot. Everybody agreed this was a problem, but work on widening Commercial Street continued anyway, despite open criticism from Labour councillors.

Widened Commercial Street in 1970s, looking towards the Gas Company Offices on right, Electricity Supply Offices and Barclay’s Bank on left. Shude Hill behind car park on right. Image: Picture Sheffield

There were others also opposed to the scheme. Dr Leonard Taitz, a young South African doctor, working in Sheffield, was convener of the Conservation Society’s national transportation working party. He had started a campaign to bring the road building programme to a halt while a new policy on integrated transportation was formulated.

New roads were being built within the city centre but there were design flaws.

He cited the case of Furnival Gate, also a four-lane highway which, he suggested, was bound to be used by commuter traffic, but which divided The Moor and Pinstone Street, two proposed precinct streets. A subway to take people under the road had already been built, while Charter Row, another radial, had a barrier down its middle which cut a whole segment of the city from the centre.

Furnival Gate at the junction with The Moor showing (middle left) junction with Union Street in the 1960s. Image: Picture Sheffield

He argued that these roads were primarily being used by commuters cutting across town. But Mr K.D. Williams, head of technical design at the engineers, said this wasn’t the case, and that they were a necessary part of an integral system, that will one day be blocked off to prevent through traffic, and channel motorists to off-street car parks.

Whatever the interpretation, the roads were ‘not a pretty site.’ Certainly not ‘Sheffield’s Champs Elysees,’ as a councillor had called Arundel Gate.

Robert Waterhouse asked the important question? Would the new roads ever carry the massive traffic that Sheffield had come to expect? Would the inner ring road be built as a motorway, and would Sheffield get its two, or even three, motorway links with the M1?

Sir Ron Ironmonger pointed out that after 1974, highways would become the responsibility of the new South Yorkshire metropolitan authority and had no wish to make any drastic moves at such a late stage, and cited Nottingham which had done away with  a major part of its road programme. (Sir Ron later became leader of South Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council).

What did happen?

The 1970s proposal for the Inner Ring Road was abandoned because it would have destroyed important heritage assets like Kelham Island and the canal basin, and cash, as ever, was the stumbling block. But we did eventually get an Inner Ring Road, but it took a long time for it to be completed in its entirety. 

We can thank Duncan Froggatt, a Chartered Engineer, in his excellent book, ‘Sheffield – A Civilised Place’ (2018), for providing the timeline.

“The inner relief road had started in the 1960s starting with the dualling of Netherthorpe Road. But the later stages came much later with St Mary’s Gate and Hanover Way widened to dual carriageways in the 1980s.

“Sheaf Street was improved in the early 2000s leading to the improvement of Sheaf Square and subsequently links to St Mary’s Road up to 2009.

“The northern section from Sheffield Parkway to Penistone Road was built in two phases in the 1990s. The phase from the Parkway to The Wicker was completed in 2000, originally called Cutlers’ Gate, but later renamed Derek Dooley Way. The next stage, between the Wicker and Shalesmoor was finished in 2008.

“Once completed, it provided a continuous loop of dual carriageway, clockwise from Granville square in the southeast to Sheffield Parkway in the east, linking all main arterial routes in the city.”

Netherthorpe Road with Netherthorpe Street Flats under construction in 1965, looking towards Netherthorpe High Rise Flats. Image: SCC/Picture Sheffield

All done and dusted, but these days it is what is  happening within the Inner Ring Road that creates the interest.

Mr Williams’ plan for streets to be blocked off to traffic within the city centre did and continues to happen. Fargate and The Moor were the first to be pedestrianised, Pinstone Street is in transition, and Arundel Gate will be downgraded.

But what nobody in the 1970s envisaged was something that had been around for centuries… and that was the bicycle. Cycle routes, and the eagerness to cut car emissions, while greening our urban spaces, means that Sheffield city centre will eventually change beyond recognition.

I leave you with a story. Last week, I had to travel by car from one side of the city centre to the other. By foot it was less than a mile. By car, I travelled 2.5 miles.

Derek Dooley Way. Image: Sheffield Star

“Driving into Sheffield, I was looking forward to my friend’s hen-do. We had booked a city centre apartment, a spa day and a restaurant. What could go wrong? Yet, an hour-and-a-half later, I was bellowing tearfully into my mobile at my boyfriend: “You came to university here. Where AM I?” What had caused this emotional meltdown? Certainly not a fall-out with my friends – I hadn’t even seen them yet. Instead, my fun-filled city break had been spent navigating a series of roundabouts on the city’s ring road which kept spitting me out with increasing ferocity. Sheffield’s inner ring road has been tormenting drivers since 1961. Like many of the nation’s worst ring roads, it twists you round its little finger only to catapult you into bus-only zones or roads that lead you off in the opposite direction to the one you need.” – Jenny Scott – BBC News – 2014

Robert Waterhouse is a journalist. Starting on the Guardian in Manchester and London, he turned freelance and was launch editor of the daily North West Times. He is a co-editor of the review Mediterraneans. His books include The Other Fleet Street, a history of national newspaper publishing in Manchester.

©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.


“There is no building or civic space which can make the heart gasp or the spirit sing.”  

Fifty years may seem like ancient history to some. But to others, fifty years is well within living memory. In 1972, The Guardian published a special report on Sheffield.

A city on the brink of change,” was how city-based writer, G.R. Adams, described Sheffield, but has it really altered half a century later?

Let’s go back in time to see what the writer said: –

“Before this article was published, I was believed to be a true son of Sheffield. I could appear knowledgeable about goits, leats, ingots, and lady buffers. I would examine cutlery with discreet ostentation in foreign dining rooms. I had cultivated a modest paranoia about Leeds and took no interest in the affairs of Manchester or Birmingham. But now I must confess that I was not born in Sheffield, not even in Yorkshire, but in Sussex. I can therefore look at Sheffield with some detachment.

“The truth is that nothing very much has ever happened in this city. There have been no great confrontations between kings and princes, no epoch-making political drama; no great painting, literature, or music has ever been inspired in this neck of the woods. The city only rose to prominence during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. While great events were happening elsewhere, Sheffield was producing the iron and steel sinews which made those events possible – the expansion of railways, bridges, harbours, and industrial machinery. Two World Wars were fought with iron ships, steel tanks, and armaments. Statesmen who took part in the great debates of history looked over their shoulders to Sheffield for the means to carry out their grand designs.”

A fair assessment, but ‘great music’ did emerge from Sheffield. Off the back of Thatcher’s Britain, the 1980s created an explosion of talent – Cabaret Voltaire, Human League, ABC, Heaven 17, Deff Leppard – and the days of Jarvis Cocker, Pulp, and the Arctic Monkeys, came later. These musicians inspired a generation like me.

“The foundation of this fame lies in the industrial Don Valley,” wrote Adams. “Attercliffe is still an appalling place of mean-spirited houses of grey slate on blackened brick and open back yard privies. All are crowded around and overshadowed by the black hulks of dying industrial buildings. Many of the houses have been pulled down but enough remain to house many of the immigrant families and those below the poverty line. The road to Wigan Pier ran through these terrible streets. They are the conscience of the city and while one child lives in this wasteland, no councillor or citizen can sleep at peace.

“This is the spur of the great rehousing programmes that the city has undertaken. Between the wars, the extensive Manor, and Firth Park estates were built. At that time, they were sufficiently better than Attercliffe to be acceptable as an improvement, but now they are joyless graveyards of houses which will require replacement to higher standards.”

What can we say about Attercliffe? Since the article was written, the houses disappeared, and so did industry. The World Student Games in 1991 promised the great revival. Much was bulldozed, and Sheffield Arena and Don Valley Stadium were built, but even the latter wouldn’t survive. Ever since, Attercliffe has remained a lost cause, a sorry link between the city centre and Meadowhall, and a down-at-heel suburb that laments the golden days. And, while the people have returned to the city’s other old residential districts, it could be that after all this time, Attercliffe might finally become Sheffield’s next regeneration model.

In the interim, the Manor estate attracted unwanted publicity, the subject of a miserable TV documentary, but it eventually went the same way as Attercliffe. Widespread clearance and swathes of empty land appeared, but new builds have slowly brought the area back to life. Alas, Firth Park remained much the same, and is probably still suffering.

Back in 1972, Park Hill came under scrutiny, but even the writer could not have anticipated that the flats complex would be listed before suffering its unglamorous decline. Had it not been listed, it might not have risen, phoenix-like, into a citadel for young professionals, and still in the process of emerging from its slumber.

“Park Hill is a city within a city and dominates the Sheaf Valley like a castle above a moat. A second generation of families no longer remember the bitter controversy of its birth and the endless social surveys. Banks of trees and grass now cover the scars of the railway slopes and cuttings. Few grandparents now recall the previous squalor and degradation, where the Mooney gang dominated the sordid streets with razor and terror and Charlie Peace crept out at night.”

Those grandparents are long-dead, and their grandchildren are now grandparents themselves, and probably live in the suburbs watching the unrelenting spread of Sheffield’s two universities.

“On the hill, some of the best buildings in the city have been commissioned by the university. They still remain largely unrelated to each other, but the recently completed spacious underpass beneath a major road linking two parts of the campus is an imaginative solution.

“In the valley, the metamorphosis is taking the place of the Polytechnic from the chrysalis of the old Technical College. The span and complexity of its spreading wings are being watched with awe.”

The University of Sheffield advanced towards the city centre, absorbing houses, factories, churches, as well as the Jessops Hospital for Women, and almost the entire area around it. It grew to become one of Sheffield’s biggest employers, creating space-age buildings, and made the city appear incredibly cosmopolitan.

Now it is the turn of Sheffield Hallam University, the former Polytechnic, with aspirations to flatten and recreate former manufacturing areas and provide a welcoming gateway to the city.

“The new Crucible Theatre is an exciting building with its foyers painted so costly gay. It could be a place of real artistic achievement if the city will support it.”

The city didn’t support it, at least not in the beginning, but far from being the ‘white elephant,’ it was saved by snooker and then by the very thing it was built for – drama, musicals, shows, and pantomimes. The Crucible’s been joined by the Lyceum Theatre, empty and redundant in 1972, and is regarded by critics as the best producing-house outside London. Its foyers painted so costly ‘gay’ resonate with its recent multi-million pound success story – Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – doing good business in the West End and made into an Amazon film. Try explaining Amazon to our seventies’ forebears.

“There are many fine buildings of power and character in the city but few of real grace and elegance. There is no building or civic space which can make the heart gasp or the spirit sing.”  

And this has been the case ever since, but times are quickly changing, and nobody could ever have anticipated, nor waited for, the long-overdue Heart of the City redevelopment.

“But now the city is facing new challenge to its skills. There is no more land left within its past boundaries to meet the new housing, industrial, and social needs of a rising population. The major expansion of the city has been channelled into Mosborough to the south-east. Here it is planned to increase the local population by 50,000 within 15 years. It is a bold and ambitious plan, based on a series of townships of 5,000 each, linked by a grid network of roads fed from a new expressway to the heart of the city. The problems of implementing this explosive growth may have been underestimated by both the local authority and the private sector. There is concern that neither the ambitious programme nor the high environmental target standards may be reached.”

It was about this time that my parents considered buying a new house at Mosborough. I was young and the thought of moving miles away from the city sent a shiver through me. But Mosborough wasn’t that far away, and the move never happened, at least not until the 1980s. By this time, previously unknown names emerged, and wrapped themselves into city history – Owlthorpe, Waterthorpe, Westfield, Holbrook, and Sothall – becoming extensions to existing suburbs like Hackenthorpe, Beighton and Halfway. And along came Crystal Peaks, Drakehouse, and, of course, Supertram.

G.R. Adams failed to mention in 1972 that there was a flaw to this masterplan. Much of this district was farmland, the border between the West Riding of Yorkshire and Derbyshire, to the south of Hackenthorpe, where most of the townships were planned. All was not lost, because those parts of Derbyshire soon found themselves in a new county.

“Local government reform will create a new South Yorkshire metropolitan county with four constituent districts of Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham, and Sheffield. Each of these proud cities (sic) faces similar problems of industrial waste and neglect, substandard housing, and declining industry. Sheffield as the largest centre will have considerable influence. Yet while preoccupied with Mosborough to the south-east, it must offer cooperation and coordination to the north and may have to divert resources.

“The whole of South Yorkshire is increasingly dominant by the large, nationalised undertakings for coal, steel, rail, gas, and electricity, and larger but fewer organisations concerned with major heavy engineering. The power of decision is moving away from South Yorkshire and the control of its destiny is slipping into other hands.

“While there are great financial advantages in the whole area being designated an intermediate area, it is a blow to the independent spirit of Sheffield that it can no longer stand alone upon its own excellence.

“Perhaps the most difficult task for the city is to avoid being misled by its own pride and to recognise its own deficiencies. It must create a major change in its industrial future and encourage a rich creative diversity in its life and leisure.”

And while there will be critics of Sheffield’s progress over fifty years, it could be said that the city did re-invent itself. With little heavy industry remaining, the emphasis has switched towards leisure, service industries, and something that could never have been envisaged, a digital future.

As we reflect on our city of long ago, we must touch on the astonishing decline of the city centre.

Nobody anticipated that Sheffield, with a city centre full of shops and people, would fall victim to Meadowhall and the internet. Who could have anticipated a city without Cole Brothers, Walsh’s, Cockayne’s, and Paulden’s (which would become Debenhams a year later)?

Sheffield is still changing, perhaps quicker than most other cities, and the two stages of the Heart of the City redevelopment, might be the much-needed catalyst to reinvent the city centre’s future.