Community group to mount challenge to change how Sheffield Council makes key decisions

The It's Our City steering committee at the press conference.
The It's Our City steering committee at the press conference.
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Committed campaigners will launch a petition in the hope of changing the way decisions are made by Sheffield Council.

Members of It's Our City - which they define as a 'community-led network of Sheffield residents' - are hoping to gather the required number of signatures to trigger a referendum on the model of governance at Sheffield Town Hall.

Anne Barr makes a speech at the press conference.

Anne Barr makes a speech at the press conference.

The group held a press conference at a cafe in Nether Edge to announce their intention to take action under the Localism Act 2011 following what co-chairman Ruth Hubbard said was a build up of frustration at the way council leader Julie Dore and her cabinet had made decisions in recent years.

Sheffield Council's key decisions are currently discussed at cabinet, and if approved, referred to full council to be rubber stamped but Ms Hubbard said the set-up denied councillors a voice and the chance to have a 'meaningful vote'.

Ms Hubbard said: "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."

The legislation, which was introduced as part of the Localism Act 2011, requires a petition signed by five per cent of those on the Sheffield Council electoral roll to trigger a referendum.

Sheffield Council is currently run under a 'leader and cabinet model,' but It's Our City members want to change it to allow more decisions to be made at committee level and give 'more elected members a voice'.

Fylde Borough Council saw a similar change in governance in 2015 following a referendum 12 months previous and West Dorset District Council also made changes following a vote last year.

Ms Hubbard said: "In the next few weeks we will try and hold a meeting with democracy services at the council and then launch the petition.

"We also don't have to worry too much about in terms of the wording because it is written in statute so I think we will have the petition ready by the end of the summer."

Sheffield Council said the petition would require at least 20,334 signatures - five per cent of the 406,695 registered on the electoral roll in the city - to trigger a referendum.

Ms Hubbard said the group had already been out speaking to people living in the city about the issue and felt they had more than enough support to the vote.

She said: "People were really gobsmacked when we told them how decisions were made and people know something is going wrong. When we've been telling people about it, they've said it's terrible and not democratic.

"It's not going to be the answer to everything but it's a step and it's something that we ca do as a local community to prompt change in our city."

At the press conference Anne Barr, of the group's steering committee, said the decision to try and prompt a change in governance was driven by frustration at a lack of consultation on a number of decisions.

She said: "One of the saddest things I've seen in a long time was a banner, which said: 'Sheffield - where democracy goes to die.'

"This was actually at a rally for the tree campaign and we don't need to say anything more about that because this is one of the issues that is most heavily publicised in all the media. But what I wanted to do was give you a few more out of countless issues that people in Sheffield feel passionate about at the moment.

"The selling off of Cobnar Cottage in Graves Park - 6,000 signatures in a matter of a couple days on that one. It's now sold off.

"Devonshire Green development and the death of independent shops like Rare and Racy- gone, why? To make way for expensive flats and yet more Costas with all the profits going out of Sheffield.

"Birley Spa heritage building left to deteriorate then £500,000 to actually do it up again. It's just been sold off at auction for £120,000 - mismanagement of money. Actually, the Birley residents wanted that as a community centre.

"The Central Library - thankfully that's on hold.

"The relocation of De Hood on the Manor - again, for redevelopment - selling off assets."

Ms Barr also listed the Mount Pleasant development and the General Cemetery car park plans as other issues the group were frustrated with.

She added: "What they all have in common is Sheffield Council's failure to listen to what local communities want to happen or not happen on their doorstep. It's got to change, it must change - enter It's Our City!

"It's a simple concept - coming together and working as communities throughout Sheffield to affect change and greater democracy, it's a simple statement but is rather hard to achieve."

Ms Hubbard said the group had also taken legal advice on the petition and possible referendum and hoped to launch a crowdfunding appeal as part of the plan.

She also made it clear the group was not connected to any political party or specific campaign in the city.

Sheffield City Council did not respond to The Star's request for a comment.

For more information visit www.itsourshefield.co.uk

WHAT THE LOCALISM ACT 2011 SAYS

Sections 9MC and 9MD of the Localism Act 2011 state that a local authority could be required to hold a referendum where it has received a petition signed by at least 5 per cent of local electors. Regulations may specify matters such as the form of petitions (including electronic petitions), their verification, the timing of referendums, the action to be taken by a local authority on receipt of a petition, and the manner in which and times at which the number of electors required to sign the petition is to be calculated and publicised.

Section 9ME enables the Secretary of State, by order, to require all local authorities, or all authorities of a particular description, to hold a referendum on a particular form of governance arrangements.

WHAT WOULD THE CHANGES MEAN?

- A leader and cabinet model sees decisions first discussed at cabinet meetings, and then if approved, passed to full council meetings to be approved.

- Political balance is not needed in the Cabinet - also known as the executive.

- Under the committee structure, if councils decide to appoint one or more overview and scrutiny committees, these have the same powers and functions as overview and scrutiny committees in a leader and cabinet model.

- The statutory duty on the authority to scrutinise health, community safety, and flood prevention remains in place.

- Councils who choose not to have scrutiny committees must specify how these will be scrutinized, either by the full council or by one of its committees.

- The Localism Act 2011 specifies that, in order to change from a cabinet system to a committee system, local authorities must: pass a resolution to change their governance arrangements; as soon as practicable after passing the resolution, make the provisions of the new arrangements available for inspection; publish in one or more newspapers circulating in the area a notice which describes the features of the new system and timescales for having passed a resolution and complied with the publicity requirements above.