Sheffield City Region is all about relevance. Local businesses and politicians seem fixated with it. A look at the history of the region – which centres on the city of Sheffield and its neighbours such as Rotherham, Doncaster, Barnsley, Chesterfield and Bassetlaw – suggests why that might be the case.

More than three decades ago, after years of growth as an industrial hub specialising in steelmaking and coal mining, competition from abroad took its toll, causing steel mills and coal mines to close their doors. The region found itself economically irrelevant, slipping into a depression so deep that many locals still get emotional recounting that time.

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Made of steel

Today, one look at the region shows anything but a post-industrial wasteland. With investment from globally renowned brands such as Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Virgin Media and insurance group Aviva, the region’s economic output in 2012 of $36.5bn was roughly the size of Latvia’s and twice that of Iceland. Since 2002, Sheffield has seen the completion of more than 500,000 square metres of commercial development and, fittingly for the birthplace of stainless steel, its centre is dotted by modern steel and glass buildings.

“The main thing that underpins the change is that we went from feeling sorry about ourselves to looking at where we need to be in the future. Now we are focused on what we should become in the next five, 10, 15 years. There is no point in solving yesterday’s problems,” says Richard Wright, director of Sheffield’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Such an approach is certainly made easier by Sheffield's academic institutions. Every year more than 18,000 students, including 1500 engineers, graduate from Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Sheffield, and the region boasts one of the highest student retention rates in the UK. These institutions can be seen as one of the major forces driving the region’s economic turnaround. “Our expertise remains in manufacturing, but in a different realm. Innovative manufacturing demands research, demands grey matter and that comes from universities,” says Nigel Brewster, a partner at Doncaster-based Brewster Pratap Recruitment Group.

That grey matter, together with the fact that advanced manufacturing is currently undergoing a revival in the UK, certainly boosts the economy and, consequently, local morale. But there is more to the region’s economic revival. Local academic institutions are working with the private and public sectors through the Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) to shape the strategy of the region’s economic development. And although such a partnership is not uncommon – there are 38 similar entities in England – its efficiency and results are.

In 2012, the LEP ranked highly in both fDi Magazine’s LEPs ranking in August 2012. “It is one of the few LEPs that is not defined by the political boundaries,” says Mr Wright. “We just work and try to make things work,” adds Mr Brewster, who is also the partnership’s board member responsible for workforce-related issues.

Small but strong

Characteristically, 95% of all people employed in the region work in one of the region’s 54,000 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Over the years, the economy has evolved from being heavily based on manufacturing and mining to a diverse mix of knowledge-based sectors, such as healthcare technologies, creative media, low carbon and advanced manufacturing. UK retailers such as Next, Asos and Maplin keep their logistics centres around Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley.

“Our economy is dominated by SMEs and mixed in terms of industrial activity. That is one of our biggest assets, because not only do we have a strong supply chain for companies, but we can evolve quicker than places dominated by one sector or one big employer,” says Lee Strafford, a local entrepreneur and board member of the Sheffield City Region LEP.

Mr Strafford provides an example of the success that can be achieved by putting faith in Sheffield's high-tech environment. After years spent in London, he was looking for a place to start his telecoms company. It was the mid-1990s and London was the most obvious place to be for tech start-ups, yet Sheffield-born Mr Strafford decided to return to his home town.

“I realised that there was an opportunity to bring graduates from local universities with people from the industry to build an innovative business in a low-cost location,” says Mr Strafford. Plusnet, the company he co-founded, went on to become one of the UK’s most popular internet providers and in 2007 was acquired by BT Group, the UK’s biggest telecoms company, in a deal worth about $103m.

It's good up north

Although a lot has changed since Mr Strafford started his company, he insists that Sheffield remains an attractive and low-cost location for tech companies. “You can still find lots of land for development and graduates from world-class universities here,” he says. Moreover, according to the Office for National Statistics, salaries in Sheffield are on average 29% lower than in London, while grade A-office space in the city is 40% cheaper than in the UK capital.

Mr Strafford adds to that mix the good quality of life, an aspect not commonly associated with the region, given its image as a centre for heavy industry. “We are located right by the Peak District National Park, which is one of the finest national parks in the country. To come to this interview [in the centre of Sheffield] I drove through the Peak District, enjoying the environment. Where else I could do this?”