Frequently Asked Questions about the Sheffield Governance Referendum

1) What is the Sheffield referendum?

The Sheffield governance referendum is a chance for voters to force the Council to change the way it makes decisions to be more democratic, so that all 84 councillors can actually do the job voters believe they are electing them to do. At the moment, only 10 of the 84 councillors hold nearly all the power!

2) Why are we having a referendum?

Under the Localism Act 2011, It’s Our City! organised a legally-binding petition, and more than 26,000 Sheffield voters signed (the biggest such petition ever)! Because over 5% of Sheffield voters signed, the law forces a governance referendum to be held, so that voters (not the Council) can force the Council to use a more democratic way of making decisions.  

3) Could the Council have changed without spending money on a referendum? 

Yes, most Councils change without holding a governance referendum, and national experts recommend that councils should do so if a petition is started. Unfortunately, although we told the Council that Sheffielders were eagerly signing the petition, the small group clinging onto their power in the Council, ignored our warnings.

4) When is the referendum and how do I vote?

The referendum will happen at the same time as the local elections in 2021 on 6th May. You will get an extra, light-green voting paper for the referendum. The referendum was postponed from 2020 because of lockdown.

5) Do I need to register to vote in the referendum?

If you are already registered to vote in elections, you can vote in the referendum. If you are not registered to vote, then the deadline for registering was midnight on the 19th April, at www.gov.uk/register-to-vote

6) What are the 2 real choices in the referendum?

The 2 choices, on how the council is run, are:

  1. Keep the current ‘strong leader’ system, where the Council leader alone has the power to make nearly all decisions, and where 74 out of your 84 councillors have hardly any power.
  2. Change to a Modern Committee system, where all councillors actually have the power to do the job voters believe they are electing them to do. Councillors will work in small committees to make decisions, and communities can have a bigger voice. All councillors will have the power to make and influence decisions.

If more than 50% Vote for Change with option 2, then the Council will be legally forced to change to a Modern Committee system.

See the next FAQ for the exact words of the question you will be asked.

7) What will the question be on the referendum voting paper?

The wording of the question for governance referendums is set in law:

“How would you like Sheffield City Council to be run?
    By a leader who is an elected councillor chosen by a vote of the other elected councillors.This is how the council is run now.
or
    By one or more committees made up of elected councillors. This would be a change from how the council is run now.”

We urge voters to choose the second option – Vote for Change!

8) What is the fundamental difference between the current system and a Modern Committee system?

In the ‘strong leader’ system currently used in Sheffield Council, the power to make almost all decisions is in the hands of the Council leader (or the 9 other councillors handpicked by the leader, to be in the Council Cabinet). The other 74 councillors, from all parties, have virtually no power to make decisions or represent you, and don’t even have the right to speak in meetings where most decisions are made.

In a Modern Committee system there is no cabinet – the formal power and authority lies with full council. Decisions about each policy area (e.g. Transport & Development) are made by a small group of 12-14 councillors from all parties (in proportion to the number of councillors in each party). These committees also get input from citizens and communities and the other councillors. Decisions are made with input from a wider range of people, better representing the city as a whole, and hopefully leading to better decisions that have more legitimacy. There is still a leader in a Modern Committee system, who will have more time to concentrate on strategy and representing Sheffield regionally and nationally to get the best deal for the city.

8b) Which system is more efficient?

The name ‘strong leader’ system sounds like it could be efficient and streamlined, but in reality it’s not. Because the government realises that a system where all the power is in the hands of a few can easily make bad decisions, it insists that all ‘strong leader’ councils have something called ‘scrutiny’. This ‘scrutiny’ is meant to check the decisions made by the few, but it is slow and strangely has no legal power to force the cabinet of 10 to change their decisions! In Sheffield there are 4 of these ‘scrutiny’ committees in the existing system and councillors spend a lot of time checking the decisions made by the few. They do a lot of good work and make some good recommendations, but in Sheffield the Cabinet of 10 routinely ignores these recommendations! In Sheffield, it’s almost impossible to find any cabinet decision that has been changed by this wasteful ‘scrutiny’ process in over 10 years – what a waste of councillor’s time!

The Modern Committee system may sound complex because it has the word ‘committee’ in it’s name, but if you look at the diagrams below (originally created by Sheffield Council) you can see that it is actually simpler and clearer about how decisions are made than the existing system!

9) Why does the council use the current system?

All large councils were forced to use the ‘strong leader’ system by the Blair government in the early 2000s. Since 2011, councils have been able to change to the more democratic Modern Committee system.

10) How many other Councils use the new Modern Committee system and why?

The new, more democratic Modern Committee system is used by councils of all different sizes and led by different political parties, e.g. Glasgow (1.5x larger population than Sheffield and 1.8x larger GDP), Belfast, Nottinghamshire, Brighton and a number of large London Boroughs. Over 30 councils have already changed or are in the process, and interest in change is increasing over recent years. They are often councils where the voting pattern is fairly equal between 2 or 3 parties, and where no 1 party has a big majority of votes (exactly like Sheffield). All councils that have changed have done it to improve democracy, so that they better represent voters, to give individual councillors the power to represent their areas, and to increase citizen’s confidence in their council. A referendum in the London Borough of Newham, supported by its Labour-led Council (97% of the councillors are Labour), is also happening on the same day as Sheffield’s. Sheffield is leading the way for an increasing number of similar campaigns across the country wanting to change to the new, more democratic system.

11) What is the problem with the current ‘strong leader’ system?

 The current system is undemocratic, leads to bad decisions, and causes a focus on divisive party politics instead of doing the best for the city. The 10 councillors who actually have power to make most decisions (whether Labour or the LibDems in recent years) are unrepresentative of the city and are indebted to the Council leader for their positions and the extra money they get. Power in the Council is based on the feudal patronage of the leader, rather than ability or merit and it relies on secrecy and the exercise of power by the few. Full Council meetings in Sheffield are dominated by tribal, party-political slanging matches where the small group in power acts as “if you aren’t with us, you are the enemy”. The breadth and depth of experience and knowledge available from all 84 councillors is being wasted. The ‘strong leader’ system is an experiment created by the Blair government and a group who are fanatical about centralising power in Westminster. However, right from the start it created problems with bad decision-making and there have been a series of government investigations on how the failing checks and balances on the leader’s absolute power could be fixed.

As we heard from people all over Sheffield when collecting signatures for the petition: “Why should I bother to vote if my councillor has no power?“!

12) How can a Modern Committee system makes things better?

A Modern Committee system is: 

  • Open: more opportunity for citizens, experts and communities to have their say.
  • Representative: all 84 councillors have decision-making power to do the job voters believe they are electing them to do – not just the Leader and Cabinet.
  • Cooperative: councillors from all parties have to work together to make decisions, reducing party-political tribalism and increasing efficiency.
  • Accountable: every councillor takes a role in making policy and seeing decisions enacted.
  • Democratic: Decisions are made by (politically proportionate) committees of councillors, from all parties, working together. 
  • StrongerBetter decisions can be made, more democratically, and with more input, experience and knowledge from a wider range of people. 

13) How many committees will there be?

There is no set number of committees – each Council decides what’s best for its city. The committees are based on major functional areas, such as housing, finance, education etc.

 A city the size of Sheffield would typically have about 5 main committees, each with 12-14 members, each committee being responsible for the Council’s principal functions.

14) Who supports change?

Over 26,000 Sheffielders signed the petition asking for change – over 90% of the people we asked to sign, thought that a Modern Committee system would be better than the current system.

Change is supported by people from all the political parties in Sheffield. Both the LibDem and Green Parties have publicly said they support change. Amazingly, over 80% of the candidates for the council elections in May (from all parties) have now said they support change at the referendum!

Before she resigned at the end of 2020, the local Labour Party led by Julie Dore, publicly opposed change. This was not representative of local Labour member’s views, many of whom support change. At least 3 of the 6 local Constituency Labour Party groups have voted on and announced their support for the Council to change to a Modern Committee system, so it would seem that more than half of Labour’s membership in Sheffield support change.

The day after we submitted the petition in August 2019, 6 Labour councillors (including the then deputy Labour leader, Olivia Blake) resigned from their official party positions stating that they had signed the petition and supported change. Because they are split, the local Labour Party as a whole does not have a public position either for or against change, but many Labour council candidates have shown their support for change on their election leaflets.

15) What information is the Council publishing about the referendum and is it accurate?

We have spent a lot of time trying to ensure that the Council’s information is not in breach of the regulations, especially related to cost comparisons of the 2 systems.

The Council will be sending a leaflet to every household. It contains some complicated design diagrams of 2 “proposed governance systems”, but the referendum question is NOT about choosing either of these specific designs. The question is asking voters to choose between the 2 fundamentally different systems, not the specific details. The design of the Modern Committee system will actually be decided by future Councils (and adapted after experience).

The Council’s committee system proposal is not typical of other Councils that have changed – unfortunately it looks to be specifically designed by the small group currently in power, to avoid sharing power properly! However, if the referendum supports change, then there will be 1 year during which the new Council will have time to design a proper Modern Committee system.

The Council has also published some information about the costs of their 2 proposals. We believe that information to be highly misleading, because it only includes about two-thirds of the real cost of the current system! See the next question for more accurate cost info.

16) What is the difference in costs between the 2 systems?

Saving money is not the main aim of change, but a well-designed Modern Committee system, similar to those councils that have already changed, could easily cost around £49,000/year less than the current system (see detailed costs). This is based on the cost of each meeting (as published by the Council) and the typical number of committees and meetings in councils that have already changed. All councils have planned for their new system to be at least cost-neutral, and some have reduced costs. The council’s information on costs is highly misleading because it leaves out two-thirds of the real costs of the current system.

17) Will the speed of decision making be different in a new Modern Committee system?

Sheffield needs GOOD decisions not FAST decisions.

Some people say that the new system will be slower, and more bureaucratic because it has “committee” in its name, but this is incorrect – both systems use committees to make decisions. The fundamental difference between the systems is not speed, but that the new Modern Committee system is more democratic and representative – leading to better, well-informed decisions.In the current system most decisions are made by the committee of just 10 councillors in the Council cabinet, with all the other 74 councillors being excluded and prevented from even speaking! By law it has to have a ‘scrutiny’ process that wastes a lot of time and is ineffective. See this diagram that shows how complex and unclear the existing system is!

The Modern Committee system is more streamlined and less bureaucratic than the current system. Decisions can actually be faster in the new system, as confirmed in a study by Maidstone council. All councillors have the rights and power to actually do the job they are elected to do. Each councillor will have the right to represent their areas in decision by speaking at meetings.

In Sheffield, a major problem with the current system is that the few who have power often make poor decisions. Then a lot of time & energy is wasted because the communities affected  have to protest against these bad decisions before it then backtracks.Experience in other councils shows that decision-making in a Modern Committee system is not slow. In the current system, many decisions in Sheffield – like the Local Plan – have been delayed for years! All Modern Committee systems have an ’emergency’ decision process, but it is rarely needed.

18) Will councillors have to go to more meetings in a new system?

The number of meetings for each councillor is about the same in both systems. However, in the current system many hours are wasted each month shouting in the ‘political theatre’ of the full-council meeting, which has very little power and rarely votes on important things but often on symbolic or national policies that the Council has no power over! In the current system councillors also waste a lot of their time talking in meetings that have absolutely no power over decisions.

In the new system, councillors will have to work together more constructively, so their time will be used more positively and efficiently.

19) Which system relies on more decisions being delegated to unelected officers?

In the current system, each of the 10 councillors in the Council Cabinet is individually in charge of very big policy areas that are too big for them to manage alone, so inevitably decisions are made by unelected officers.

In a Modern Committee system, each policy area will be run by a committee of about 14 councillors instead of 1 person. The 14 councillors can collectively bring much more knowledge and time than 1 person, so decisions don’t need to be made by unelected officers. The Council’s own report on changing to a Modern Committee system confirms this.

20) The ruling party has the majority of councillors, so why shouldn’t they have all the power?

Voting in Sheffield is fairly evenly split between the 3 main parties (20-30% each for Labour, LibDems or Greens). The ruling party (either Labour or the LibDems in recent years) is only voted for by around 10% of the electorate, so in no way has a mandate to rule on their own. The current ruling party was voted for by only 9.7% of the electorate, but has nearly 100% of the power! This is exactly the reason why other similarly balanced councils have already changed to a Modern Committee system – so that power is shared out to make the council more legitimate, so that decisions are not made by a small unrepresentative group, and so that people have confidence in their Council and are more likely to vote.

21) Aren’t Sheffield’s problems caused by Austerity, not the Council?

Austerity has made the Council’s job much more difficult, by significantly reducing the money they can spend. This means that it is even more important that the Council makes good decisions, and that all councillors concentrate on doing the best for the city, and that help from communities and citizens is encouraged. The current system has created a bunker mentality in the small ruling group, where they see ‘enemies’ everywhere and reject help. Sheffield Council is notourious for being difficult to work with, nationally and locally. Much of Council time is wasted on tribal, party-political fighting. We desperately need help from local voluntary organisations to combat the terrible effects of austerity, but their confidence in the Council is very low and decreasing every year.

Changing to a Modern Committee system can make a real difference here, because it is a more cooperative system, where councillors from all the parties have to work together, and include outside organisations, to do the best for the city instead of the constant party-political fighting in the current system, that Sheffielders told us repeatedly they dislike so much. It will also free up the Council leader to concentrate on the city’s long-term strategy and representing Sheffield to national government to get the best deal for the city.

22) Who are ‘It’s Our City!’ ?

It’s Our City! is a non-party-political, community-led network of citizens in Sheffield thinking, talking and working together on local issues of common concern to us all.  We seek to be an independent, positive and productive contributor to a vibrant local democracy, and for the well-being and resilience of our diverse communities.

Most of our supporters are not members of any political party, although we are supported by members of all the main parties in Sheffield. Our constitution prevents our membership and coordinating group being dominated by political parties, so that we can remain independent.