Celebration in the cemetery: Activists and council move forward preserving Sheffield heritage site

When Jim Dimond rose to speak in the Sheffield General Cemetery last Saturday, it marked a significant stepping stone in the story of his activist group, Save Our Green Open Spaces (SOGOS).

The group, which formed over a year ago to oppose the council’s plans of building additional car parking on the cemetery’s heritage grounds for the cost of felling trees, now got recognised by the council.

Two members of it have been selected to join a Site Management Committee that oversees the spending £3.7m of Heritage Lottery Fund which was awarded to conserve the area in July.

He said: “We are glad that we have been invited by the Council to join the Whole Site Management Group overseeing this project as ‘community reps’. This is a step in the right direction because the community hasn’t been fully consulted nor informed about this issue before.”

The Celebrate Our Cemetery Park event attracted about 100 residents despite the pouring rain. It also saw several musical performances, as well as speeches given by councilors ensuring the community their voices will be heard as they move forward with developing the cemetery.

During the event, locals had the opportunity to leave their suggestions about the council’s plans on a sheet of paper and the councillors who spoke at the event pushed to make sure people know their views will be considered.

Councillor Mary Lea said: “It’s up to the people involved and doing lots of consultations with them what happens next, how we will go along.”

Councillors Joe Otten and Mary Lea with Jim Dimond at the event

This agreement is a product of over a year-long struggle of SOGOS to raise the council’s awareness of the topic. Their struggle has not been fruitless so far, as last April they managed to convince the council to reduce the number of planned parking spaces in the cemetery from 14 to four – a decision the group cautiously welcomed.

Looking back on the start of their movement, Mr Dimond recalled: “Save Our Green Open Space was launched as a non party political campaign group to bring together a diverse group of people united behind one cause – to preserve our green open space in the General Cemetery and to keep it free from cars and pollution.

“We knew from the beginning that we needed to be better organised to take on a large and powerful organisation such as the Council. We’ve learned a lot from the trees campaign in which STAG (Sheffield Trees Action Groups) have successfully made use of the power of social media to further their cause.”

STAG co-chair Paul Brooke, who has had a generous amount of collisions with the council before, also spoke to point out some parallels between the struggles of his group and SOGOS’s endeavours.

He said: “Both campaigns show the power of the local community to stand up and say: ‘this is wrong.’ If we let the council know that the result of their actions will anger the community, they will eventually listen.”

Now the latest concession from the council will see Dimond and Wendi Hebb, two figures key in mobilising Sharrow locals against the plans, have instant access to planning improvements and spending the lottery fund.

Attendees enjoying the musical performances

Mr Dimond said: “Our biggest challenge is influencing the Council and helping them to understand that there are better solutions that will save precious cash to meet the needs of improving access for all without knocking down walls and introducing concrete and cars. This is a historic registered landscape and should be respected and preserved for future generations.”

The parking spot, which is set to be constructed in the north-eastern side of the cemetery, is said to improve accessibility to area. As SOGOS points out, however, it could seriously harm the heritage site and would not benefit disabled people in the way council hopes.

A disability access report commissioned by Julia Holberry Associates on behalf of Sheffield City Council and carried out by Phil Chambers in May 2017 clearly stated that such a solution would not be advisable.

“There is a clear need, in an historic landscape such as Sheffield General Cemetery, to balance the access needs of visitors with the conservation of the historic environment,” the report said.

Residents left their suggestions about the upcoming developments

“On balance, most disabled people would prefer to see reasonable and practical modifications made rather than inappropriate landscape and building interventions which might ultimately negate the heritage character of the site.”

Ann-Marie Marshall, a disability rights campaigner working with SOGOS, added: “I want equal access not segregation. On street disabled parking bays are preferable, creating safe, equal and shared access for everyone, is vital for community cohesion.”

What comes next is up to the council. While the plans for the disabled parking lot are still in place, locals now hope having their representatives working closely with SCC will yield some results they desire.

Mr Dimond adds: “SOGOS is pragmatic and we’re happy to move on and to avoid escalation and potential conflict in future if at all possible. The ball is in their court.”