It’s Our City! welcomes the resignation of Sheffield City Council Leader, Julie Dore.

There has been, and remains, deep disquiet about the current council regime and the undemocratic way it operates. Local voluntary and community organisations say that the Council is unresponsive and insular, and bad at working collaboratively in partnership. Nationally, SCC has become notorious for being difficult to work with. These problems have been revealed by many – most notably and recently in the unsurprisingly damning report of the Local Government Ombudsman about SCC’s attitude to the street tree campaign and actions against the people of Sheffield. The reaction of James Mitchinson at the Yorkshire Post , that Cllr Dore’s departure is “long overdue”, is shared by many.

Most importantly, the council leadership has lost the confidence of the people of Sheffield.

Using the current undemocratic “strong leader” system of governance, Cllr Dore exploited the feudal-like power given to her in the council constitution, to practise rule by the (very) few. It is an insult to citizens and communities that the Leader chose to hold on to all power with a less than 10% electoral mandate. This has resulted in the vast majority of councillors (from all parties) not having a real voice in the decision-making that affects their wards and our city.

It is extraordinary that Sheffield’s communities and stakeholders also have no active role in decision-making at a local level. Sheffield is completely out of step (and way behind) what similar cities are doing. Cllr. Dore has often said that most people are not interested in politics, but the reality is that Sheffield politics has not been that interested in people.

Under “strong leader” governance, Cllr Dore handpicked and surrounded herself with those seemingly unwilling to challenge her rule, but who benefited from her patronage. Full council business is now dominated by tribal, party-political conflict where the leadership’s attitude is ‘if you aren’t with us, you are the enemy’. Cllr Dore showed repeatedly that she was far more naturally suited to seeing and making enemies, rather than allies. Her “strong leadership” was never about building the diverse, collaborative and positive relationships required to support city resilience. She regularly insulted members of the public simply exercising their right to ask public questions in full council.

It is important to note that these problems are not inherent to the current ruling party in Sheffield. For example, Labour-led Cheshire East council (a large unitary authority) recently announced they are voluntarily and enthusiastically changing from “strong leader” to a modern committee system, without needing a referendum. Labour-led Newham has also committed to much greater democracy in local governance, welcoming the input of all citizens. Other councils across the country (led by a range of parties) have already shown the positive effects of changing to a modern committee system. In Sheffield, many ordinary Labour members and supporters want our Council to change too.

There has been a failure to publicly recognise and acknowledge all this by the ruling group of councillors, not just the “strong leader” herself. It is they who could – and should – have taken action. That they did not, over a long period of time, has caused great harm to our city. The six councillor resignations from Cabinet-related posts in August 2019 was a clear signal that a long overdue change of direction was needed – but the Leader, and those who have surrounded and benefitted from her “strong leader” patronage, failed to act.

What happens now?

Although Cllr Dore ruled over a long period of dysfunctional council governance, that has become deeply rooted, we believe that change is possible. The Leader’s departure provides a rare opportunity to take the first steps towards making Sheffield City Council stronger, better able to serve its diverse communities, and to respond to the challenges we face.

Following the success of Sheffield People’s Petition, the decision on how the council operates is no longer in the hands of a resistant handful clinging onto power in the council leadership. The collective action of Sheffield citizens and communities, using the legal rights given to them in the Localism Act 2011, means that the decision is now in the hands of citizens. Sheffield People’s Referendum, now happening in May 2021, will finally enable citizens to vote to get rid of our city’s dysfunctional “strong leader” governance system and bring in a more democratic modern committee system.

Sheffield is unique – In no other UK city have 20,000 citizens taken part in important conversations about local governance. Ours was the largest ever local petition for a change of governance anywhere in the country. Many groups working across the country have been inspired by Sheffield’s desire for democratic local governance and are taking, or planning to take, similar action. The experiences, ideas and insights of Sheffielders resulted in a detailed agenda for democratisation and change https://www.itsoursheffield.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/ioc-evidence-and-community-principles-for-a-modern-committee-system-final-working-paper.pdf

In refusing to listen to Sheffielders, in trying to continually ‘fudge’ the issues, in misrepresenting community campaigners, and in clinging on to decision-making power with almost no electoral mandate, Sheffield City Council leadership has, so far, acted true to form.

The new Leader of Sheffield City Council must embrace change, and immediately start the long-term work required to enable our city to become a democracy, including cooperative power-sharing and the structural and cultural governance changes needed. They must also commit to quickly and enthusiastically implementing the result of Sheffield People’s Referendum after May 2021.

The new Leader will be the Leader of the ruling group, but, more importantly, must be able to positively lead the whole city together into the future.

Sheffielders will be watching, and It’s Our City! will also be keen to ensure that voters are aware of the views of candidates standing in the local elections in May, alongside Sheffield People’s Referendum for democratic governance.