New dawn for Sheffield Council politics

Sheffield Council has begun a new era of politics that aims to be more collaborative following a historic and dramatic full council meeting this week.

Thursday, 19th May 2022, 5:29 pm
Updated Thursday, 19th May 2022, 5:40 pm

This year is the first for the council operating under a modern committee system that will force politicians to work cross-party in everything they do from making decisions about bins to setting a budget that avoids bankruptcy.

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Councillor Terry Fox, who was elected leader of the council after some chaos in the Town Hall, said: “We have been informed by statutory officers about the serious situation we are in and people chose not to go with that advice.

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Councillors voting in Sheffield Town Hall council chamber.

“All I can say is I am going to try my best as leader to navigate our way through with all members of our committees to get this over the line.

“We have a massive deficit with the budget to sort out. Let’s take up our challenge of putting this back on the rails.

“For me it is about getting up and doing the business for the people of this city…for every single person in this city that is dealing with that cost of living crisis. They have been there before, they thought they were through it and they are there again having to deal with it.

“It’s not time for party politics. It’s time for rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands really dirty into this and delivering decisions for the people of Sheffield.”

Political party leaders councillors Shaffaq Mohammed (Liberal Democrats), Terry Fox (Labour) and Douglas Johnson (Green Party) in Sheffield Town Hall.

How things have changed

The local authority has switched from a strong leader and cabinet model to a committee system this year which it will have to keep for the next decade.

It follows a record-breaking campaign by It’s Our City which led to a referendum on how the council is run.

This referendum took place during last year’s local elections and the result was an emphatic yes for change.

Sheffield Town Hall council chamber where the biggest decisions are made.

Over the past year, the council has been working out exactly how the system – which aims to give all councillors more say in decision making, rather than a handful from the most dominant party having all of the power – will work.

Each committee will take responsibility for a particular area of council business and make decisions relating to that. The members of these committees will be politically proportionate to the make up of the council, meaning councillors will have to work together cross-party.

Party leaders also agreed that the chairs of each committee will be politically proportionate to the make up of the council as well.

‘Theatrical’ leadership race

Although the committee system is all about cross-party working at every level, officers said there needed to be a council leader otherwise officers would have to take over.

New leadership was eventually settled at a dramatic annual general meeting on Wednesday which nearly left the local authority – which is responsible for one of the biggest populations in the country, more than 550,000 people – with no leader.

Informally, councillors described what happened as “theatrics”, “crazy” and “chaos” among other things.

Amid emergency talks on how it could be settled, councillors joked that a pigeon who crashed proceedings should make the decision.

It took two votes, stern words from council officers and the Liberal Democrats withdrawing from the leadership nominations before an agreement was reached.

It came after failed talks over two weeks between party leaders after the council was left in no overall control for a second consecutive year at the local elections.

Initially, councillors Terry Fox (Labour) and Shaffaq Mohammed (Liberal Democrats) were nominated for leader of the council.

Ahead of discussions, the Liberal Democrats made it clear they thought the Greens had a decision to make on who they wanted to be in a coalition with.

But despite publishing a press release in the morning of voting suggesting the Greens expected a Labour leader, the Greens voted against Coun Fox and against Coun Mohammed – effectively voting for no leader.

The Liberal Democrats and Labour voted against each other being leader of the council.

This created a stalemate and the meeting was adjourned and party groups had emergency meetings to discuss a way forward.

Eventually, Coun Mohammed said he would back out of the leadership race to resolve the issue and councillors gave him a standing ovation.

He said: “If we do not resolve our budget deficit then I kid you not there is real danger commissioners, appointed by a Conservative government, may come and take over and I will never allow that while I am here.

“So for the sake of Sheffield I told my colleagues that we will not be nominating myself, it’s bigger than me.”

Coun Fox thanked Coun Mohammed and gave his own speech saying what happened was “upsetting and absolutely unforgivable”.

After the meeting, he said: “We called both other parties around the table earlier this week to try to hammer out a way forward. Nobody had to sign up to everything but a way forward we could work together to tackle the serious issues that are facing this council.

“We are in this situation now in a system that is going to be here for at least 10 years and we fell at the first hurdle, that is why I was so angry.”

Explaining why they chose to not vote for a leader, Coun Douglas Johnson said he understood there would be a Labour leader and deputy leader on the basis that Labour had made an agreement with the Liberal Democrats.

He said: “The Greens took the position of supporting Green policies. We had talks with both of the party groups and there was some progress there on working across committees and splitting the chairs so all three parties are represented in the administration but we didn’t reach agreement on how those committee chairs would be arranged…

“We were a bit surprised when it seemed to us the Liberal Democrats did a u-turn on voting against that and the Liberal Democrats did another u-turn to reverse the u-turn and get back on track.

“The net result was a functioning administration now.”

The new committee system set up

The makeup of the council is currently: Labour has 39 councillors, Liberal Democrats has 29, Green Party has 14 and there is one Conservative councillor and one independent councillor.

The following outlines which parties will chair which committees:

Labour: strategy and resources; finance; education, children and families; transport, regeneration and climate change.

Liberal Democrats: economic development and skills; waste and streetscene; communities, parks and leisure.

Green Party: housing; and adult health and social care.

Coun Terry Fox is the leader of the council and Coun Julie Grocutt (also Labour) is the deputy leader.