Following objections made by It’s Our City! community group, Sheffield City Council officers have told us that they are making significant and extensive changes to the information about Sheffield People’s Referendum published on the council website – and to information that it will be sending to all Sheffield households before the referendum on 6th May.

Both last year and this, our council has been a few days away from sending information out to every Sheffield household that, we believe, would have seriously misled citizens and communities. This would be against government regulations on referendums and, obviously, could have had very serious legal implications. It’s Our City! have put considerable effort into trying to ensure that our council did not make such a serious error, and so that citizens do receive fair and legal information.

We welcome the last minute revisions that include wide-ranging amendments, and major sections removed and/or rewritten. We still think the information could be better and more impartial. However, we do recognise the very significant improvements made and the fact that the changes respond to over 90% of the points we have raised.

But, we must note the original (mis)information has been visible and available on the council website for over a year. We know this has had a damaging impact. It has been distributed and circulated e.g. on social media, and therefore has misled the public and contributed to confusion over a long period. It has also been used to spread misinformation about the referendum, by those who want to keep the current undemocratic system in the council where power is in the hands of the few.

For us – Sheffield citizens and communities who have been working together for change and for basic democratic rights to representation for all in our city – it is disappointing and dispiriting that the original council-published information was written in the way it was and was visible on the website over such a long period. This is especially so given we made detailed representation on this issue over a year ago, and because Sheffield People’s Referendum was won by the committed, collective and collaborative actions of ordinary Sheffielders working together (without any of the resources of the council). Citizens do need to be able to trust their concerns will be heard, and to rely on accurate, fair and honestly presented information (and this incident tells us that citizens need to continue to scrutinise carefully what our council is doing, and to challenge where necessary). However, we do thank officers who, even at this late stage (and under new Chief Executive leadership) have – at last – responded by doing the right thing, seeking appropriate advice, and making necessary and wholesale changes.

We encourage every voter to look at It’s Our City! Frequently Asked Questions about Sheffield People’s Referendum: It’s Our City! is a (non-party political) community group coordinating Sheffield citizen’s campaign for more democratic council governance, where all councillors we elect in our local areas are able to do the job voters believe they are electing them to do!

The legals and a little more background…..
Under The Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) Regulations 2012, the council must publish a legal notice of the Referendum, and can also provide “factual information relating to any proposals or the referendum so far as it is presented fairly” (Section 4:7, our emphasis). Council information must be accurate, honest and impartial, and citizens and communities should be able to trust and rely on the information to help us all to make an informed choice in the referendum. The referendum choice is between either the “strong leader” model which involves decision-making powers vested in only 10 out of 84 hand-picked councillors, or decision-making powers (via modern committee governance) in the hands of all councillors we elect to represent us across the city.

It has always been clear to us that the public information on the council website did not meet the legal requirements for fairness and impartiality (see Q15 of It’s Our City! Referendum FAQs). More than a year ago, for example, we were very concerned to witness senior council officers come under extreme pressure from a few Cabinet members holding executive power under the “strong leader” to present and endorse misinformation. Given previous community experiences across Sheffield it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was part of deliberate attempts by a very small group of councillors in charge to prejudice the outcome of the referendum for political reasons, for their preferred undemocratic status quo.

One of our biggest concerns on the council website was “costing” information that was, to us, a work of fiction. Unfortunately, as many people know, our council Cabinet has a history of inflating “costs” for political purposes. Cabinet members wanted referendum information to be presented to the public to falsely highlight that modern committee governance would cost council tax-payers tens of thousands of pounds more than currently. It is, however, simply and wholly untruthful that modern committee governance is more expensive than the “strong leader”. (For accuracy on this please see Q16 of It’s Our City! Referendum FAQs.) Now, in the new revisions of information, all “costings” published on the website are to be removed, and mention of cost-neutrality included. (However, we also note that on our own costings based on published council information about intentions, modern committee governance could offer up to £50,000 annual savings.)

It’s Our City! raised our serious concerns with council officers about the published information over a year ago and had some discussion, but made little progress. This year (following referendum postponement due to coronavirus) we again raised our concerns about voters being misled, and have had open and productive discussions with senior officers. As a result, the significant revisions and rewrites are now being made.

Sheffield People’s Referendum takes place on 6th May, alongside local elections. Citizens and communities across Sheffield won the referendum by exercising our “community rights” in the Localism Act 2011 (in the largest exercise of its kind anywhere in the country).

The referendum has secured the right for all the citizens of Sheffield to decide the way our council works (its governance), our council can no longer decide for itself. The decision we make, as voters, is fixed for a minimum of ten years so we believe Sheffield People’s Referendum is the most important vote citizens have had in Sheffield for a long time. Councils across the country led by all the main political parties (and by none) are utilising democratic modern committee governance.

At the moment, more than 90% of the electorate in Sheffield are unrepresented in decision-making. The only way for citizens and communities to get a voice and a right of representation in decision-making via their local councillor is to vote for change to modern committee governance.