Dear Secretary of State,

We are writing to you concerning the Coronavirus Emergency Measures Bill, which we understand is being drafted at the moment, and the risk that any emergency legislation may restrict or block the community rights given to citizens in the 2011 Localism Act.

On the 24th August 2019, voters in the Sheffield City Council area, using the powers given to communities in the 2011 Localism Act, submitted the biggest ever petition in the country calling for a change of local council governance.

Collecting signatures for the petition was a massive undertaking, that involved volunteers from It’s Our City speaking face-to-face with over 20,000 citizens as well as a very large online campaign. From this, it is clear that Sheffield’s citizens overwhelmingly believe that a change from the current Strong Leader system to a Modern Committee system will create a more democratic, responsive and efficient council. As the petition was signed by more than 5% of Sheffield voters, the Localism Act now legally requires a local Sheffield referendum on governance to be held on or before the local election of May 7th 2020.

Delay to May’s local elections has been announced and we understand the Coronavirus Emergency Measures Bill will be published soon. It is important that any emergency legislation does not restrict or block the democratic rights given to communities in the Localism Act and does not unfairly delay a change of governance supported by the majority of Sheffield’s citizens. As the legislation enabling the referendum is separate to the legislation covering local elections, we think it will probably require some specific legislation to vary the strict timescales contained within the Localism Act and related Referendum Acts.

As we understand it, the plan is to postpone this year’s local elections until May 2021. At first glance, this implies that Sheffield’s governance referendum would also be delayed until May 2021. Postponing of the elections for 1 year may be the most straightforward option nationally, and appropriate at this stage when the future is unclear. However, a similar delay to Sheffield’s governance referendum would clearly be contrary to the timescales set out in the ‘Localism Act 2011’, the ‘Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) Regulations 2012’ and the ‘Local Authorities (Referendums)(Petitions)(England) Regulations 2011’.

Those currently in power in Sheffield Council have not welcomed the call for change from communities across Sheffield. Even though over 90% of those asked to sign the petition support change, the Council disregarded calls to change voluntarily without the expense of a referendum before the petition was submitted. Since the success of the petition, the Council has also appeared to want to sideline community aspirations for more democratic governance in preparing for change.

Before the postponement of the elections, the timetable published by the Council was for the referendum to be held on 7/5/20 and (if the referendum supported change to a committee system) for there to be a 1-year “pre-implementation period”, so that the actual governance change would only have happened in May 2021, 1 year and 9 months after the petition was submitted. If the referendum is to be delayed until May 2021, then the actual governance change would only happen in May 2022, nearly 3 years after the petition was submitted! This would be completely contrary to the much shorter timescale specified in the Localism Act.

There is a serious risk that Sheffield’s communities will become even more disillusioned if there is such a long delay in enacting their democratic wishes contrary to the rights enshrined in the Localism Act.

Please could you ensure that any Bill affecting the governance referendum in Sheffield will take account of the democratic will behind the referendum, and include specific provision for:
1) Holding Sheffield’s governance referendum as soon as possible and before the next elections in May 2021, as soon as it is safe and practical.
2) Removing the 1-year “pre-implementation period” after the referendum, if it supports a change of governance. An extra 1-year “pre-implementation period” on top of a delay will only serve to further frustrate the democratic will of citizens.
3) Encouraging Sheffield Council to create an independently-led panel, with cross-party support and including representation from communities and third-party organisations, to properly prepare for a change to a committee governance system in these difficult times.

There is currently a serious democratic deficit in Sheffield, where the ruling party is only supported by less than 10% of the electorate, but has virtually 100% of the power. It is vital that any emergency legislation guards against the risk of central government legitimising any unnecessary delay in holding the referendum and that the timescale for implementation of change to a more democratic system is minimised. This will require careful thought, beyond simply postponing the elections.

There are other options your Department could examine, to avoid the risks of failing the clear community aspirations for change in Sheffield and deviating from the legislative framework. As the organisers of the governance petition in Sheffield, It’s Our City! would welcome discussing with you the implications of any emergency proposals related to the referendum and the provisions within the Localism Act.

Yours sincerely,
Woll Newall and Anne Barr (Co-Chairs, It’s Our City!)