Sheffield Greens refuse to be pushed around in power-sharing deal with Labour

If you thought the Greens would go quiet after forming a cooperative with Labour, forget it.

By David Walsh
Saturday, 14th August 2021, 6:00 am

Leader Douglas Johnson is uncomplimentary about the party that has run Sheffield for so long and uncompromising about his agenda.

Meek silence as junior partner in the ‘executive’ running Sheffield City Council - comprising three Greens and seven Labour councillors - is not for them.

But the arrangement is not just good for the Greens - it’s their first ever taste of power - it’s good for Labour too, Coun Johnson insists.

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Coun Douglas Johnson, Executive Member for Climate Change, Environment and Transport.

The ‘secrecy’, ‘cliques’ and ‘buckpassing’ that led to a ‘tainted political culture that was wrong and not fit for purpose’ are firmly in his sights.

Now, he says, issues are properly thrashed out, rather than ‘avoided, side-stepped and sneaked in by the back door’. Ouch.

If the Greens have their way there will be an end to ‘cliques’ of senior councillors, officers and contractors like Veolia, Capita and Amey allegedly acting unaccountably.

Such arrangements led to the street tree scandal and ultimately to a record number of people - some 26,000 - voting to change the way the authority is run, he says. The new committee system arrives in the new year.

The Greens are set for a clash with Labour over reopening Pinstone Street.

Coun Johnson, executive member for climate change, environment and transport, said: “People used to joke, ‘don’t join the Greens if you want power and influence’.

“But it means the council is now making better decisions and Labour has got to work better too.

“In a two-party executive you can’t have as much secrecy. The criticism of the council and contractors’ decision making around street trees was that it was run by a clique of people hiding behind commercial confidentiality. A lot of that has had to go now.

“We will sometimes disagree with Labour but in a more respectful way. That’s really important for political debate.”

Sheffield City Council faced protests in response to its controversial tree felling programme which aims to replace thousands of the city's 36,000 street trees.

Despite all that, Labour has a majority and can win any vote.

Already, council leader Terry Fox has verbally axed swathes of a £1.5bn plan to regenerate the Sheaf Valley. With this Coun Johnson agrees.

But Coun Fox also said he wants to see Pinstone Street reopened - at least to buses - after a traffic ban to allow social distancing in June 2020. With this Coun Johnson disagrees – the Greens want the road kept ‘open’ for walking, cycling and the environment – and the two parties seem set for a clash.

Coun Johnson said his opposite number was simply reflecting a ‘knee-jerk response to the conservative wing of his party that didn’t like change’.

Sheffield City Council's new leader Coun Terry Fox.

He added: “Coun Fox knows it’s a complex issue and he knows it has to be worked through.”

When pushed, he acknowledges Labour’s majority power – but then makes clear he won’t stay in an abusive relationship.

“The Greens don’t need to be in the executive at all. Both parties could end it at any time.

“Labour has a majority of councillors but the Greens, Lib Dems and Conservatives could get together to remove Terry Fox as leader.

“This is the best arrangement Labour could negotiate and the best they are going to get.”

Proving he is unafraid to be unpopular with some, he defended the Pinstone Street closure, which saw 27 buses moved to stops a quarter of a mile away - and ongoing protests from passengers.

Coun Johnson, leader of the Green Party in Sheffield, on Division Street which has been partially pedestrianised.

“It’s inconvenient for some, others benefit. When people shop now, they are increasingly going to The Moor. The buses are good for West Street. A lot of people want to go to a lot of different places, you can’t please them all. If you want to go from A to B you want a taxi.”

He is outspoken too on the Clean Air Zone, claiming Sheffield City Council has sat on £24m from Government for 18 months. He accused the previous, Labour, administration of lacking the courage to implement it although ’people are dying’.

He also revealed the authority has applied to the Levelling Up Fund to pay for a new FreeBee bus service, which The Star and others have been campaigning for.

And he wants to see normal bus services brought back into public control - called franchising - and urged mayor Dan Jarvis to ‘get on with it’.

But on the subject of climate change he is surprisingly soothing.

Raising awareness is the best way to drastically reduce emissions to avoid the worst impacts on the planet, he believes.

The world has a long way to go but has come a long way already. And he praised Sheffield’s steelmakers who, although they consume vast amounts of energy, are far better than most firms at using it efficiently, he believes.

He added: “The more we delay, the bigger will be the changes that are forced on us. We recognise there is a climate crisis but we should see it as an opportunity.

“For businesses, it gives them a commercial advantage over those that are stuck in the past. Invest in energy reduction schemes now and we will be saving money in the long run.

“Can we be the country’s leading manufacturer of wind turbines and solar panels? Can we be training people to deal with the climate emergency?

“I think the way to deal with it is to promote basic awareness of the impacts. It worked with plastic bags, there has been a massive drop in consumption.”

Increasing understanding in business was ‘critical’ he added.

“It’s incremental but produces a snowball effect. I’m optimistic, we have come a long way.”

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Thank you. Nancy Fielder, editor.