Sheffield residents join guest panel at The Star’s city centre debate
The hot political topic of whether Sheffield should have an elected mayor came under intense scrutiny at a lively debate last night.
During the event, organised by The Star and hosted by Sheffield Hallam University, readers from a range of backgrounds, from former MP Joe Ashton to students, charity workers and political activists, raised questions about the plan.
The ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps have just two days left until Thursday’s referendum to convince the public and the mood was sceptical to begin with.
A show of hands at the start indicated that only around one third of the audience was in favour of an elected mayor whereas two thirds were against.
The first question was from Barry Fitzgerald, who asked why the current system of local government should be changed when the extent of a mayor’s potential powers is not yet known.
Meanwhile, Derek Cave was worried that too much power in the hands of a mayor could mean ‘not enough checks and balances’ on decisions.
Jol Miskin, of the Workers’ Educational Association, queried whether the change would engage more people in the political process or just lead to a ‘fight between egos’.
Questions also included whether a mayor, as a single all-powerful figure, could be more vulnerable to lobbyists.
There were further queries about the Government’s motivation for having elected mayors – and whether a mayor could make any difference to how Sheffield solves its massive social and economic problems.
Richard Wright, executive director of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, who was one of the panelists, argued of the need for change in how the city is run – but was cautious about whether a city mayor was the right option.
He said that Sheffield is currently a ‘very unambitious city’ and that, in straightened economic times, the public sector is not delivering good enough value for money.
“We don’t sell ourselves well. If a mayor will get things done then why not but it depends which mayor you get,” Mr Wright said.
He added that the city would need ‘someone with electoral appeal and good management skills’.
Kevin Meagher, chairman of Sheffield4Mayor campaign and a former adviser to the Labour Government’s Northern Ireland Secretary, assured the audience that the city needs a ‘champion’.
“We know what powers a mayor would have – those of the current council and some extra ones. We have a 19th Century system at present and if we vote no we will be left in a second division of cities.
“Lobbying could work the opposite way with an elected mayor being able to lobby on Sheffield’s behalf.
He added: “The Conservatives, Nick Clegg and most Labour people I know nationally support elected mayors.”
But senior members of Sheffield Council’s current Labour administration spoke against change.
Coun Jack Scott, who represents Arbourthorne and is an adviser to leader, Julie Dore, branded the change a ‘leap in the dark’ and a ‘distraction from real issues’.
He said he ‘might support a regional mayor’, however, as a way of bringing different areas together – which he believes is the London Mayor’s strength.
Coun Leigh Bramall, Sheffield Council cabinet member for environment and transport, said: “Cities will have extra powers if they keep the current system of council leader and cabinet, too.
“People are disenfranchised with the current system but what will make a difference is going out talking to them.
“Council leaders already lobby for the city. Both Julie Dore and her predecessor Paul Scriven met overseas business leaders and pressed the city’s case with the Government.”
The discussion ended with a further show of hands - showing a few more people won over to the mayoral cause but a majority still against.
The debate continues.