Star readers grill Sheffield politicians
Star readers packed out the Winter Garden to grill their local politicians on everything from school exclusions, dementia care, to indoor bowling.
The event was hosted by Star editor-in-chief Nancy Fielder. In the weeks before the Q and A, our news desk was inundated with brilliant questions, almost all of which were put directly to elected members of Sheffield City Council’s cabinet by you, our readers.
Kicking things off, long-time Star reader and letter writer Ron Clayton asked what was being done to fix the roof of the Old Town Hall.
Councillor Mazher Iqbal, cabinet member for business and investment, said: “We have been working closely with the Friends of the Old Town Hall and the Castlegate regeneration group to ensure there is a future for the building.
“One possibility is the Friends want to fundraise to bring the site back into use. The second thing is, it is not an asset of the council, it belongs to somebody else. So we are now starting to pressure the landowners to do something with it.
“We are waiting for the findings of a survey taken out on the roof, when we have those we will be asking the landowners to pay for the repairs.”
Jonathan Burton, from Woodseats Against Fracking, asked the second question, which was: “Does the council have any plans to monitor the number of road movements and the water when fracking takes place in other places?”
Coun Jack Scott, cabinet member for transport and development, replied: “We have taken one of the boldest stances against fracking than any other council in the country.
“What we need is a renewable revolution in this country and more fossil fuels and more carbon is the last thing we need. We have been consistent for many years now to tackle that.“We will monitor the road movements, we have very little power over the water but the powers we do have will be used to the fullest extent. We don’t want either fracking in Sheffield, nor the dirty, polluted, toxic water from fracking.
“What we really need is a ban on fracking in this country.”
Noah Martin asked the next question, about school exclusion rates and how the council supports schools in helping students to avoid exclusion and pupils who have been excluded.
Coun Jayne Dunn, cabinet member for education and skills, said: “The good news is exclusion rates are coming down over the last two years, but there is still an awful lot of work that still needs to be done.
“The fragmentation of academisation is causing most of these problems. Our schools are under the most extreme pressure with funding that they cannot possibly deliver what each children needs. Our funding gap is 15 percent to tackle education needs. The government have said we need this money now, but they are not prepared to give it to us now.
“In the meantime, we are working on an inclusions strategy to make sure we are making the best use of everything and not making the same mistakes. That will be ready in the new year.”
Dr David Clarke, who said he has read The Star’s letters pages for the past 30 years, asked: “Why do you think the public tend to blame the council for cuts to public services that have been imposed upon it by Westminster? And, why isn’t the council more effective in getting this message across to the public?”
Coun Julie Dore, leader of the council, said: “First of all, there are many people in Sheffield who have to live with the cuts to local government and the impact of those very difficult decisions we have had to take as a council are down to austerity measures that the coalition government introduced in 2010. I think many people do now accept that.
“Local government services are the bedrock of public services. For every pound you disinvest in those services, it will cost more in expensive services such as the welfare, justice and health systems.
“I believe we have now got the message across that austerity does not work and disinvestment in local services creates more cost further up. We put it out in our annual council tax letter, every press statement and when we meet people.”
Deborah Cobbett, from Sheffield Save Our NHS, then asked what the council’s position was on the new integrated care system that is causing local and national anxiety.
Coun Chris Peace, cabinet member for health and social care, said: “I am determined that we are not going to be driven by the Tory agenda. It’s hard but I think that working with our partners in Sheffield we can, and we have been doing that successfully.
“I do agree that when you have this regionalisation, there is a risk that it could lead to more privatisation but as you rightly say, as a Labour party we put our NHS at the very top of our public services. We should be very proud of it, and should be owning it, not having more privatisation that fragments the whole system.
“So that is what we are trying to do in Sheffield, we are not engaging with the ICS, and we will keep an eye on what it is doing.”
Emma Kirk asked about how the council was going to ensure they comply with the decent homes standard.
Coun Jim Steinke, cabinet member for neighbourhoods and community safety, said: “As part of our development programme we have already been making sure that each of our council houses are up to standard, and I’m very proud of that work so far.
“In terms of the private rented sector, I think there is a lot more that needs to be done to raise the standards. At the moment we have two selective licensing schemes that are tackling the worst of the private rented accommodation in Fir Vale and along the Abbeydale corridor. That is bringing those up to a fairly decent standard.”
David Broomhead then asked a question about small business rate retentions.
Coun Olivia Blake, cabinet member for finance, said: “We do recognise this as really important and we are waiting to see if those government plans materialise.
“It is a really uncertain time for local government finance. But we are working closely with the local government association and other local authorities to lobby the government.
“Brexit makes it difficult for us to say but it is really important that we continue to press government for answers on how they are going to fund us.
“We were promised an answer last year and promised 100 percent business rate retention by 2020 but that has not moved forward yet so we believe there is no point in getting hung up on numbers that aren’t going to materialise.
“We have to be responsive and flexible about how we deal with this because we are in such a difficult financial position and have lost 50 percent of our government grant.”
Alison Kerry then asked who parents turn to when there is a serious issue with safeguarding in a academies and how can an academy carry an outstanding status when there has been no Ofsted inspection since 2012.
Coun Dunn said: “Academies under this government are businesses. Accountability from the public and the local authority has been diminished.
“What you should do is go to the board of governors. We are working on empowering people through our inclusions strategy. But what we need to do, is you and I should have a conversation and share contact details to look further into this.”
Coun Jackie Drayton, cabinet member for children and families, added: “If you have an issue with the school you need to go through the governors but, if you have a safeguarding issue you can tell our team at the council but we can have a chat after this evening.”
Andrew Oldfield quizzed the council about the regeneration of rail.
Coun Scott replied: “The rail system in this country is jurassic, it is far too old, especially in the North, and it is far too slow.
“The connectivity to other cities is absolutely vital, we have said consistently about the electrification of the mainline and HS2 as well that if we get this right as a country, rail can be a major benefit to our economy.
“If we don’t see the electrification we will have missed the best opportunity for rail growth investment since the Victorian times.”
Next, Jim Diamond asked: “Why has the council granted planning permission for a car park in the general cemetery, against the wishes of local people who weren’t consulted and contrary to advice in a disability access report?”
Coun Mary Lea, cabinet member for culture and parks, said: “The general cemetery is one of Sheffield’s most historic sites and nicest places to go in the city.“There has been a friends group there for many years and permission for a heritage lottery fund to regenerate the centre.
“Part of the masterplan included a car park which they need to put on events, weddings and concerts which are essential for the ongoing revenue for the site.
“That application was approved by the council but it was also supported by Disability Sheffield and other disability groups.”
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Stuart Wilson and Izzy George then asked about what facilities there were for indoor bowling and asked to get related authorities together to discuss it further.
Coun Dore replied: “I think it would be absolutely wonderful for Sheffield to have an indoor bowling centre.
“It could help the ageing population who are living longer in poorer health, and people who are living in isolation and loneliness.
“Bowling itself, being part of a social group and getting out, doing physical activity and interacting with people, makes it actually the best activity for older people.
“If we can identify a plot of land then I’m sure we can come up with a solution.”
Nancy then asked a question on behalf of a resident about street trees and what progress had been made.
Coun Lewis Dagnall, cabinet member for environment and streetscene, said: “This week we had the last of our mediated talks with STAG which were chaired by the Bishop.
“There is a diversity in civil society about this and diversity of campaigning by civil society groups which we welcome. We are now at a point where we are in ongoing talks with those groups about how we build a better relationship and trust and how we put the community spirit they generate to good use.
“I am a trustee of Heeley City Farm, which came out of Heeley bypass, one of the most bitter disputes in the history of the area. But out of that we now have a wonderful space where excellent activities take place for people with learning disabilities. So I hope the issues we have had in the past few years with street trees we can actually put the energy into something beneficial for the city.”
Laura Parnaby then asked for a response to the It’s Our City petition, calling to change the system of the council.
Coun Dore said: “There is a petition going around that has quite a large number of signatures which could potentially call upon the council to have a referendum in our city about changing the governance of the council from the strong leader model to political system.
“We have serious concerns about calling upon the council to have a referendum o
“Secondly, referendums are very divisive and give people a binary choice on complex issues can lead to unintended consequences.
“I have repeatedly said, I am more than happy to sit down with campaigns and discuss what it is they think is failing with the current system and find a solution to that. I do not think moving from our current system to a committee system will not achieve the outcomes they need.”
Mick Nicholas and Rita Brooke both asked about dementia care support.
Coun Peace said: “We are creating a dementia strategy at the moment but it is in the very early stages.
“We want to improve our dementia care in the city and become one of, if not the best in the country.
“We are determined to focus on this. We are a very compassionate city and I hope as many people as possible contribute to the consultation on the draft strategy. Once we have a response to the consultation it will be going through the health and wellbeing board and scrutiny.”
Abby Beckett-Smith, of the Friends of Birley Spa asked: “Our group want to have meaningful discussions with you to ensure a viable future for the Birley Spa Bath house which means the Hackenthorpe community and wider community can use Birley Spa and also enables the amazing Victorian plunge pool to be seen again on heritage tours.
“However It is difficult to negotiate when we have the threat of sale hanging over us all the time. Are the council prepared to withdraw the Asset Disposal notice?”
Coun Blake answered: “We have many ageing assets across the city, Birley Spa is one of those that the council services have said they cannot maintain anymore. So, we made a decision to put it up for auction. In that time we realised the community want to help provide a solution.
“I’m very happy to sit down and discuss the intricacies with you but as part of the legal procedure of assets of community value there has to be the notice. It does not mean we have a date set for sale.
“But the state of the building is diminishing and we need to see that historic asset maintained for future use.”
Yanghai Zhang asked: “What is the council doing, or has done, to make women feel safe in the street at night?”
Coun Steinke replied: “It was awful that happened in that way. We talked about this today with a wide number of people.
“We have also just launched the domestic and sexual violence strategy and need to continue to look at specific ways we can help people. Misogyny is a hate crime.”
Neill Schofield asked about how the council is responding to Brexit.
Coun Dore said: “The problem is, we don’t know what kind of Brexit we are going to have.
“There is a lot of uncertainty around the country and particularly in public services. But operationally it is not going to have any immediate impact on staff, supplies and services.
“But if it is the case that whatever Brexit we get makes the country poorer, I think that is an issue itself and will have a massive impact on this city, on jobs and businesses and the income that can be generated from taxes.”
Rene Meijer asked about climate change.
Coun Scott replied: “Absolutely right that climate change is the biggest threat we have ever faced as a species. It will be as big a threat in the twenty-first century as war was in the twentieth.
“We have launched our Green City strategy to help us become carbon neutral which will set out how we will cope with the impact of climate change. So we have developed a plan for how we can become a resilient city to withstand climate change.”
The evening ended with Nancy asking the cabinet: “If you could have one Christmas wish for Sheffield, what would it be?”
Coun Scott said the electrification of rail.
Coun Dunn said free adult training.
Coun Iqbal said more businesses open.
Coun Blake said all of the money lost by austerity.
Coun Dore said both football teams in the premier league.
Coun Drayton said to get rid of poverty and low wages.
Coun Steinke said better public transport.
Coun Peace said a Corbyn-led government.
Coun Dagnall said for Gleadless Valley foodbank to get a big haul of donations.