Sheffield Council was almost left with no leader as it enters new era

Sheffield Council was almost left with no leader following a dramatic full council meeting today as it entered a new era of cross-party working.

Thursday, 19th May 2022, 1:08 pm

Labour councillor Terry Fox – who was eventually elected leader – said it was “upsetting and absolutely unforgivable” that the council nearly had no leader which would have forced officers to take control.

It comes at a time when the council is in extremely serious financial trouble and already well over budget for the first month of the financial year when it needs to make savings.

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Councillors Shaffaq Mohammed (Liberal Democrats leader), Terry Fox (Labour leader) and Douglas Johnson (Green Party leader) in Sheffield Town Hall council chamber after the vote.

Coun Fox said: “The people of Sheffield who are going through this cost of living crisis and with every other challenge that every family is facing they do not want to see us playing party politics in there at this moment in time. They want a serious administration that is going to deliver for them.

“We have got challenges everywhere you look in this organisation – we can’t hide away from that, it’s what we have got to deal with. People are in serious trouble.”

It came after failed talks over two weeks between party leaders to try to settle on who would take the reins after the council was left in no overall control for a second consecutive year at the local elections.

What happened?

Councillors voting in Sheffield Town Hall council chamber.

Political parties clashed in the council chamber and it took two votes and stern words from council officers before an agreement was reached.

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 earlier in the day suggesting the Greens expected a Labour leader, the Greens voted against Coun Fox and against Coun Mohammed – effectively voting for no leader.

Sheffield Town Hall council chamber.

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: “In the next few weeks you are going to hear how serious the budget deficit is, how serious our reserve levels are and I am not laying it on because all three leaders have been given this briefing earlier this week.

“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 during the meeting 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.”

Who is responsible for what now

Things will work differently at the local authority this year regardless of leadership as it is the first year of operating under a modern committee system, rather than a strong leader and cabinet model.

This new way of working aims to give all councillors more say in decision making, rather than a handful having all of the power.

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.

The makeup of the council is: Labour has 39 councillors, Liberal Democrats have 29, Greens have 14, 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.