Sheffield set for 'unnecessary' referendum on how council makes decisions as campaigners prepare to hand in petition

A referendum is expected to be held next year as campaigners prepare to hand in a petition calling for changes in the way Sheffield Council makes decisions.

Tuesday, 20th August 2019, 08:54 am
Updated Wednesday, 21st August 2019, 10:34 am

Community group It's Our City! launched the Sheffield People’s Petition in August 2018, with the intention of changing the decision-making process at Sheffield Town Hall.

And the group now says it has gathered more than 25,000 signatures – more than the required 20,092 to prompt a referendum – and will hand it in at Sheffield Town Hall on Friday.

Members have always said that they would have ‘much preferred’ the council to change its decision-making process without holding a referendum, which could cost the authority as much as £550,000.

It's Our City campaigners

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Once the council has received the petition, officers will then have one month to validate the signatures with those who have signed the petition having to be on Sheffield’s electoral roll, and subject to reaching the required number a referendum could take place on the same day as the council elections in May 2020.

James Henderson, director of policy, performance and communications at Sheffield Council revealed last week that a standalone referendum would cost the authority around £550,000.

He added that if the vote was combined with next year’s council and police and crime commissioner elections, it would leave the council with a bill of around £170,000.

Woll Newall, of It’s Our City! said: “Sheffield Council has had a full year to respond positively to the widespread call for positive change. They have not done so. Instead, and we think scandalously, they have chosen to spend our money on an unnecessary city-wide referendum next May.”

The group is hoping to take action under the Localism Act 2011 to prompt a change from the council’s current ‘strong leader and Cabinet model’ to one where decisions would be taken more by committees, involving more councillors in key decisions.

Fylde Borough Council saw a similar change in governance in 2015 following a referendum 12 months previous and West Dorset District Council also made changes following a vote in 2017.

Mr Newall added: “Until the council validates the petition, we do not know the final number of signatures that they will decide are ‘valid’, but as we have over 25,000 signatures we are reasonably confident that we will have more than is required.

“This will then legally force the council to hold a city-wide vote on a change of governance. All Sheffield voters will be asked if we want our council to change from the strong leader model to a system where decisions are made using a modernised committee system.

“We believe that Sheffield will say yes and that’s also what the independent experts believe and has happened across the country in similar circumstances. This will finally ensure that everyone’s elected representatives in Sheffield have a meaningful voice to represent us.”

Ruth Hubbard, also of It’s Our City!, said the campaign group always hoped to prompt a ‘proper conversation’ with councillors and officers but added that the group had now been left with no choice but to hand the petition in.

She said: “We can’t not hand it in because it would be disrespectful to the 25,000 people who have signed it but it could have been so different.

“We would have so loved a conversation and we would have so loved our council to have been on board with us and moving forward together.”

Mr Henderson said: “If a valid petition is submitted then we are required to hold a referendum on changing the council’s governance system. Any such referendum must be held on or before the next scheduled local election on May, 7 2020.

“If the referendum is combined with the two other elections (police and crime commissioner and Sheffield Council elections) that are due to be held on the same day, then the additional cost to the council would be in the region of £170,000. If the referendum were held as a standalone election on a different day before May 7, then the cost to the council would be in the region of £550,000.

“The European Union referendum cost approximately the same as the estimate for a standalone governance referendum, but because it was a national referendum, the council was able to claim back most of the cost of running this poll from the Government.

“In contrast, a governance referendum would be classed as a local poll, so the costs of holding one will be fully borne by the council.”

Sheffield Council’s chief executive and returning officer John Mothersole said the authority had been informed the petition was being handed in.

He said: “It’s their petition. They are in control of it, they deliver it to us and if the number of signatures meets the threshold set out in the legislation there will be referendum.

“Our job is to receive the petition and verify the names and addresses.”

For more information visit www.itsoursheffield.co.uk or to sign the petition visit www.ipetitions.com/petition/sheffield-peoples-petition