Frequently Asked Questions about Sheffield People’s Referendum
What is Sheffield People’s Referendum?
It is a chance for Sheffield voters to change the decision-making system in Sheffield Council to be more democratic.
Why are we having a referendum?
Under the Localism Act 2011 (which gives Sheffield citizens the power to force the Council to hold a referendum on how the Council is run) It’s Our City! organised a legally-binding petition, and more than 26,000 Sheffield voters signed (the biggest such petition ever)!
Could the Council have changed without spending money on a referendum?
Yes, most Councils change without holding a 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.
When is the referendum and how do I vote?
The referendum will happen at the same time as the local elections in 2021 (currently set for 6th May). You will get an extra voting paper for the referendum. The referendum should have happened in May 2020, but was postponed because of lockdown.
Do I need to register to vote in the referendum?
If you are already registered to vote in elections, then you don’t need to do anything – you can vote in the referendum. If you are not registered to vote, then register at www.gov.uk/register-to-vote
What are the 2 choices in the referendum?
The 2 choices 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.
What will the question be on the referendum voting paper?
The wording of the question 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.
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!
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, the formal power and authority lies with full council. Decisions about each area of policy (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.
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.
How many other Councils have changed and why?
Over 30 councils have already changed or are in the process, and interest in change is increasing over recent years. They tend to be 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.
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 business in Sheffield is 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.
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?“!
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 councillors have decision-making power – 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.
The full Council decides how to organise the committees, and adapts them over time to meet changing needs.
Decisions are made by committees of councillors, from all parties, working together.
Committee membership must, by law, be politically proportionate.
All 84 councillors will have the power to represent their areas and do the job voters believe they are electing them to do.
Power and resources for community decision-making can also be built-in, so that more decisions can be taken closer to the people affected.
Better decisions can be made, more democratically, and with more input, experience and knowledge from a wider range of people.
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 4-6 main committees, each with 12-14 members, that are responsible for the Council’s principal functions.
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.
Change is supported by people from all the political parties in Sheffield. Both the LibDem and Green Parties have publicly said they support change.
Before she resigned at the end of 2020, the local Labour Party, led by Julie Dore, opposed change. This was not representative of local Labour member’s views, many of whom support change. At least 3 local Labour ward groups have announced their support for 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.
We understand that now, the local Labour Party as a whole does not have a public position either for or against change.
What information is the Council publishing about the referendum and is it accurate?
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!
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 have 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.
What is the difference in costs between the 2 systems?
A well-designed Modern Committee system, similar to those councils that have already changed, could cost around £30,000/year less than the current system. 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.
Will the speed of decision making be different in a new system?
A study by Maidstone council shows that decisions can be faster in a Modern Committee system.
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.
Sheffield needs GOOD decisions not FAST decisions.
Experience with councils that have changed, 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 used.
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 new system, each councillor will go to about the same number of meetings, but they will have to work together more constructively, so their time will be used more positively and efficiently.
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.
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.
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 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.
Who are ‘It’s Our City!’ ?
It’s Our City! is a community-led network of citizens in Sheffield thinking, talking and working together on local issues of common concern to us all. We are non-party-political and 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.