SHEFFIELD COMMUNITIES GIVE NOTICE: NO MORE ‘STRONG LEADER’
Today, It’s Our City! heralds the end of Sheffield City Council’s undemocratic, ‘strong leader’ model. It’s Our City!, with communities in Sheffield, under the community rights enshrined in the Localism Act 2011, announce their intention to petition Sheffield City Council to adopt a reformed Committee style of governance. When 5% of voters in Sheffield have signed the petition, this will result in a city-wide referendum on making the Council more democratic, accountable and efficient.
All over Sheffield, citizens, communities and organisations are disappointed with their Council and fed up by the way their city is being run. Sheffield’s local election results in May 2018 saw significant losses for the ruling Labour administration, as well as a lack of enthusiasm for Labour incumbents, who got a turnout of only an average of 27% in the wards they held on to, compared to 37% in opposition-winning wards. Some of our councillors are listening – It’s Our City! was very pleased that, at the first full Council Meeting of the year on 6th June, some opposition councillors showed their support for one of It’s Our City!’s pledges and proposed an investigation into making the Council more democratic. Unfortunately, the weakened ruling Labour administration cut off any debate on this important subject, by changing the motion to be discussed, to one that said they think there are no problems with the current system.
It’s Our City! say now is the time for communities to step in and make the difference they want to see. The Localism Act 2011 empowers citizens to effect change. The campaign to get signatures from 5% of the verified electorate starts here – It’s Our City! are confident that people across Sheffield will enthusiastically sign a petition for change and will subsequently vote in droves to end the ‘strong leader’ model of governance in Sheffield and commence the process of revitalising our local democracy.
The current model of governance in Sheffield is what is known as a ‘strong leader’ model. It consists of a Leader plus her self-selected Cabinet of nine councillors who make all key decisions to run the city. Critics of the ‘strong leader’ model believe that, in reality, it means the vast majority of voters vote for elected representatives who do not have a voice. 88% of our councillors are excluded from the Cabinet, so have little or no say in the running of our council, and all of Sheffield’s Labour councillors are ordered how to vote by the Leader, under threat of suspension, so preventing them from representing their wards properly. The ‘strong leader’ system is also criticised for leaving power in the hands of too few; members of the cabinet are obligated to the leader who appoints them; of too many decisions made behind closed doors; a lack of proper representation for voters across and in Sheffield’s case, an increasingly authoritarian Council that has lost the trust of its voters.
Since the Localism Act of 2011 councils do not have to run under a ‘strong leader’. Some, like Reading, Sutton, Nottinghamshire, Kent, Norfolk, and Brighton and Hove have chosen to return to Committee-type structures, with many more examining the potential for change. They have done this in the interest of more democracy, more transparency and a desire to work more collaboratively across different political parties and with local communities. Committee governance arrangements give all councillors responsibility instead of cutting them out of the equation.
In some areas where such petitions have been proposed, enlightened councils have decided to move to new committee-based systems before the petitions have been presented. Following successful petitions of 5% of the local electorate, two areas – Fylde Borough Council and West Dorset District Council – were compelled to hold referenda. In both areas, residents voted with strong majorities to approve the change to new revitalised committee structures with more open governance. However, this referendum, where local voters are mobilising for changing the Council of a city as large as Sheffield, will be an historic event.
The Benefits for Sheffield
More than ever, working together has become vital. As a city hit by de-industrialisation, recessions and austerity, people in Sheffield instinctively know this, but see their Council sticking to the old model of tribal party politics and an increasingly isolated and authoritarian approach which is the opposite of what is needed. Many of the councils that have changed, using a variety of updated governance arrangements also involve residents and other organisations more extensively in their decision making processes. Indeed, many argue, a different and more open local political culture is exactly what is needed to address the difficulties of austerity and cuts to council budgets.
Through holding public meetings, and talking to voters – of all hues – across the city during the local election campaign this year, It’s Our City! has found that communities in Sheffield want to see a transformation of the relationship between the Council and the people they serve. People are shocked to realise the extent to which their local councillors are unable to represent residents properly, are appalled at the tribalism of local party politics and see an increasingly top-down and authoritarian authority who need to be reminded who serves who. The so-called ‘strong leader’ simply offends Sheffield’s sense of fairness, community, collaboration and diversity – it is a poor ‘fit’.
A Case in Point
It’s Our City!’s discussions with communities across Sheffield has revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the failures of our Council, but many of these failures never see the light of day. However, the StreetsAhead PFI contract is a rare example where the Council’s failures have been revealed for all Sheffielders to see. Sheffield City Council has been at the centre of a storm due to its bad management of the £2.2 billion, 25 year PFI contract with AMEY Hallam Highways Ltd. While the city of Sheffield is suffering under austerity, the street tree saga has seen Sheffield City council decide to waste hundreds of thousands of pounds on disregarded reports and surveys, court action, and a ‘strong leader’ “happy for the proceedings to go ahead” when seeking imprisonment of local residents wishing to halt the felling of thousands of healthy street trees.
Many believe the Council is protecting corporate profits rather than resident’s health, environment and heritage. It’s Our City! see this as just one example of the democratic deficit in the city – an intransigent Council seemingly at war with local, peacefully-protesting residents, a refusal to engage in dialogue, a fixation with the secrecy of the contract, a lack of accountability and open decision-making and a Council that seeks to lay blame anywhere except itself.
A Pro-Sheffield Campaign
Campaigners are keen to emphasise the non-party nature of their campaign and say there is nothing inherent in Labour that means the city must suffer a ruling administration that struggles with transparency, openness and working collaboratively. There are many examples of progressive, dynamic Labour-led councils where the whole city is united and forging ahead by everyone working together. Many of It’s Our City! supporters are Labour members, supporters and sympathisers – they too want to see the end of the ‘strong leader’ model and their elected representatives able to properly represent them, without sanctions from the ‘strong leader’.
Ruth Hubbard, the co-chair of It’s Our City says:
It is very disappointing that our ruling Council administration appears so consistently not to hear the extensive disillusionment in the ‘strong leader’ governance of our city. We know there is a groundswell of support for a governance system that values the role and responsibilities of all elected members, which ensures that they all have a voice and meaningful role. Communities in Sheffield want to be properly heard and represented. It is now time for us to step in; we have the power – and the responsibility – to do so. It’s Our City! will present the required petition, and people in Sheffield will vote for a change to governance arrangements – the end of the ‘strong leader’. This is a vital first move, necessary in asserting that this is OUR city, and that we want better for it and from our Council.