Deputy leader of Sheffield Council: 'We need to be completely honest about how bad things are'

“There was a so-called ‘graph of doom’ and beyond that year everything was meant to have gone wrong by now,” said councillor Olivia Blake, deputy leader of Sheffield City Council and cabinet member for finance.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 10 December, 2018, 14:52

“That’s why we have seen councils start to fall over and more are warnings that they are reaching that unstable point. We are not at that point yet but it's going to be a very difficult few years if things don't change, there's not much more we can do.”

Coun Blake balances the council's budget as well as being the deputy leader of the city and representative for Walkley ward.

She joined the council after giving up a career as a microbiologist.

“It’s slightly different to politics,” she laughs.

“I didn’t really think I would end up going in this direction at all to be honest but I felt that I had to do something.”

Her role now encompasses a variety of challenges and responsibilities, not least finding ways to keep the city afloat after facing a 50 percent cut to funding.

“I’ve only been in post for about a year and a half now. So not a huge amount of time but it’s been a really great experience and I’ve really rolled up my sleeves and got stuck in.

“I deal with the numbers on a day to day basis, and we are always in two years. So looking at the year as you are spending money and managing overspends and underspends.

“There’s also setting the budget for the following year and next five years. It’s quite challenging because you have all those different things and factors changing all the time to keep up to date with exactly where we are in terms of figures.”

Coun Blake also looks after democratic services, facilities management, HR, digital and legal services, council property as well as finance and commercial services.

The council currently spend around £402 million on daily services but calculated, taking into account inflation, that they would need around £600 million to cope with rising demand, leaving a huge gap.

“We have lost nearly 50 percent of our government grant and if any business had to do that there would be a lot of change and redundancies,” she said.

“It’s getting a lot harder to manage but what we have done in Sheffield is protect our children and adult social care. The demand for those services is ever increasing so there’s had to be a lot of cuts right across the council to be able to do that. We have been saying quite clearly to government that we need a better funding settlement to allow us to deliver the services that people need.”

Sheffield currently has £12 million in unearmarked reserves, which auditors say is ‘really not healthy’ and if the floods happened again we would not be covered.

Coun Blake said: “We do use our reserves regularly but once it’s gone, it’s gone.

“What we are looking for is a lasting and stable solution, which could be changing the way we do things but more about lobbying hard for more cash and we need to do that as a sector.

“I am confident that Sheffield are doing as well as we can but it’s really difficult, we are not like Northamptonshire yet (who declared bankrupcy earlier this year) but it is becoming more difficult and we have a crisis in children and adult social care that needs a national solution."

Amidst these crippling challenges, she has introduced things like the living wage and ethical procurement policies.

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She added: “While we continue to do the best we can for people in this city we need to be completely honest about our financial position and how bad things are for us.

"We are still trying to do the right thing, you might expect we would cut wages but it’s not the right thing for Sheffield.

“It’s been really nice to work in a collective environment where people have been really supportive as well. We work as a team and it’s not just the cabinet, it’s the whole of the Labour group really, we work and develop policy together and all sorts. It’s not always easy but we get on really well and you can see that from some of the achievements we have managed to do.”

Coun Blake lives on Blake Street, Upperthorpe, and enjoys going to The Blake pub in her spare time.

“It’s really funny how many people think it’s my road, but it’s just a coincidence,” she said.

She lives with her partner and fellow cabinet member, coun Lewis Dagnall and dog Arthur. When she is not doing council work she enjoys going to The Crucible, walking Arthur in the Peak District and seeing films at The Showroom cinema.

“I don’t think you ever do really unwind from council work,” she said.

“But chilling out, taking my dog for a walk, having a bath, eating and cooking helps. Certainly meeting with friends and family is really important to me.

“I love living in Upperthorpe, it’s a really great place with lots of independent shops, bakeries, cafes and the green spaces are fantastic as well.

“I came to Sheffield for uni and, like many people, it’s an addictive city so I stayed here. It’s great to be part of something in Sheffield, it’s a fantastic place to live.”

Coun Blake grew up in North Leeds with her single mother and four siblings. She said her mum was a big influence on her getting into politics.

She said: “She became a councillor in Leeds and I’ve kind of got her community ethos from what she did with us growing up and campaigning to save our schools, that’s been really important to me.”

Coun Blake moved to Sheffield at 18 years old to study biomedical science at the University of Sheffield.

As a student she got active in her community, joined marches and protests and worked to lobby government.

She said: “My political awakening was around the time of the Iraq war, I was a teenager and it made me want to get more politically involved and active.

“So I went on marches with my local Labour party against the war and from there I got involved in campaigning. When I got to university it was the coalition government and the effects that had on people around me that made me get even more active. What was most upsetting were the cuts that were coming with the raise in tuition fees as well, it was felt right across the university.”

She graduated and started a PhD in microbiology, which she did for three years before deciding to dedicate her full-time to politics.

Now, a few years later she is standing to be the next MP for Sheffield Hallam.