Sheffield local elections: ‘Raising the level of ambition’ – Labour’s plan for city

Cllr Tom Hunt, the leader of Sheffield City Council, has said past leaderships didn’t “shout loud enough” about fantastic strengths but the party is now delivering an ambitious plan.
Sheffield City Council leader Tom Hunt, pictured eighth right with members of the Labour Party, said his team are delivering an ambitious plan.Sheffield City Council leader Tom Hunt, pictured eighth right with members of the Labour Party, said his team are delivering an ambitious plan.
Sheffield City Council leader Tom Hunt, pictured eighth right with members of the Labour Party, said his team are delivering an ambitious plan.

In an interview with the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) ahead of next month’s local elections, Cllr Tom Hunt said his team was “raising the level of ambition” for the city and is learning from past failures like the Fargate container project.

He said the council was setting out ambitious plans to make sure “we’re delivering for the people of Sheffield whether that is plans to improve our transport public system, to build more affordable homes, to improve the services that we provide”.

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Speaking to the LDRS, which will be hearing from other party leaders this week, he added: “This is of course a challenging job and it’s been made all the more harder because we had a Tory government which is continuing to underfund councils which means our income from central government is down, the cost of delivering services are going up.”

Cllr Hunt said he felt pleased that the council was able to set a balanced budget – even though some speculated that it could have been the next in line to be in section 114 (effective bankruptcy) territory.

When he became the leader of the council, Sheffield Labour was close to overall control but in a couple of months a number of his colleagues – including the former leader Cllr Terry Fox – were suspended and then they quit the party, opening up the race to be the largest group in town hall between Labour and the Liberal Democrats who have 31 and 29 councillors, respectively.

When asked if he is concerned that he could lose his job as the leader of the council next month, he said he was confident that when people look at Labour’s plan they will see “credible options to help them and their families”.

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What about those claims that Sheffield Labour is controlled by people in London so this plan was drawn up in the capital?

He said it couldn’t be further from the truth.

He added: “I’m the leader of Sheffield Labour group, I’m the leader of Sheffield City Council; I was elected by my colleagues and the plan we’re putting forward is from Sheffield Labour.”

It was pointed out that while he was criticising the government for its record in the past 14 years, Sheffield Labour has been the largest party in the city for the same period – so the message that it’s all the government’s fault might not get through.

He said they were able to secure £67million in funding from Homes England to build two new neighbourhoods – Furnace Hill and Neepsend.

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He said: “That is the level of ambition that the city, frankly, deserves and hasn’t had from its leadership in the past.

“This new team is raising the level of ambition and people are seeing that. They are seeing that the city’s more confident, they’re seeing a more optimistic mood in the city.”

Cllr Hunt added he did not feel the city had “shouted loud enough about our fantastic strengths, which are not just industry but research, public services” and more, including the surrounding areas, such as the Peak District.

If Labour were still to be the largest party in Sheffield Council and Oliver Coppard won the mayoral election in South Yorkshire in May, then there is a possibility that by the end of the year, we’re having a Labour council leader, a Labour mayor and a Labour prime minister (Keir Starmer).

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Some say this (by being from the same party) will help the work between the three, others have raised issues about who’s going to be held to account to whom.

Cllr Hunt said as someone being out and about canvassing he knows that the “voters of Sheffield will hold us all to account”.

One of the main issues Sheffield City Council had to face last year was the containers fiasco on Fargate and the demolition of the iconic Market Tavern building in the city centre.

About the containers, Cllr Hunt said there was clearly a lesson to be learnt but he added the project was “an attempt to breathe new life back into Fargate – the central core of the city – as we were coming out of lockdown”.

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He said: “Retail took an absolute hammering during the pandemic, footfall in the city centre dropped. It was an attempt to try something new to get people back in.”

He admitted it didn’t work.

With the demolition of Market Tavern, he said the review was still ongoing and lessons will – again – learnt from that.

Cllr Hunt said this year one of his main goals was help to “restore trust in the city council”.

He said: “On the back of the Lowcock report last year, one of the first things I did as the council leader was to issue a full and frank public apology to the people of Sheffield for the actions that took place by the council during the years of the street trees dispute.

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“That was because I know – not as a councillor but as a resident – that trust in the council was really damaged. So I take this very seriously.”

He added in that letter he said they would make mistakes in the future but the most important thing was when they got things wrong, they would be clear about what went wrong and his commitment was to put their hands up and admit if there was a mistake.

Cllr Hunt also provided the LDRS with an update on how much money per person Sheffield lost in funding from the central government.

He said they had a new letter (a new estimation) so the previously communicated £856 per person is no more – the new number is £880 per person.

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He said: “When we put all this together we’ve lost nearly half of our funding since 2010.”

But how is he going to get that money back, is the next question.

He said the economy was crashed by short-lived Conservative Prime Minister Liz Truss so the job of an incoming Labour government will be to assess the state of the finances.

Keir Starmer, Cllr Tom Hunt said, is looking into a longer-term financial setting for councils.

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“Part of our problem is that every year, we are on this 12-month hamster wheel of funding how much money we’re going to have in the next financial year until the very last moment,” he said.

A longer-term plan would help them to plan more effectively, Cllr Hunt said.

“That will make a huge amount of difference,” he said.

The LDRS will hear from Liberal Democrats leader Cllr Shaffaq Mohammed on Tuesday, Green Party leader Cllr Douglas Johnson on Wednesday and Sheffield Community Councillors Group leader Cllr Dianne Hurst on Thursday.

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