“Why has our council failed to prepare for change?”

Following the handing in of Sheffield People’s Petition at the end of August, it seems very likely that Sheffield City Council will be legally forced to hold a referendum on whether to change to a more democratic way of making decisions. A referendum is widely seen – by national experts and those with local knowledge alike – as being almost certain to support change from the current undemocratic system, where the power to make most decisions is in the hands of so few. Given this almost certainty, why does our council still seem to be in denial about the need to prepare for change?

It’s Our City! had hoped that the council would recognise the wide support for change, shown by over 80% of Sheffield people we talked to when collecting signatures for the petition. Less than 10% of voters in Sheffield voted Labour at the last local elections, so the 80% who support the petition is a very significant mandate for change. We hoped that the ruling group in the council would see what a great opportunity it could be for them to embrace this enthusiasm for change and show progressive leadership in building a better and stronger city with the support of so many. That our council did not respond positively before we had to hand in the petition is a great disappointment.

Now we have handed in the petition, the rules in the 2011 Localism Act legislation will force a series of events:

1) The council must validate and announce the result of the petition within 1 month of 24th August.

2) If the petition is successful, then the council will be legally forced to hold a referendum, no later than the next local election (ie May 12th 2020).

3) Not less than 56 days before the referendum (ie before 12th March), the council must publish the specific proposals for the details of the new committee system for Sheffield, to be voted on in the referendum.

Other councils in this situation have normally taken more than 1 year to design their new committee systems, but Sheffield Council’s inaction means that it now only has 6 months! It is very important that the process of designing a new system is run by a professional and independent organisation, to get input from all the relevant stakeholders (councillors from all parties, citizens, voluntary organisations, business organisations, communities etc), to create the design goals for the new system, and then design a system that fits these goals. Nearly all councils have used the Centre for Public Scrutiny to run this process – they are the national independent experts on local governance change, with many years of experience. It is even possible that there is national funding available. Over the last year, It’s Our City! has urged the council many times to get the CfPS involved, so that the Council could properly prepare for any change, but they failed to do that.

Other councils have had an on-going conversation about governance, over some years, so they already have a sound foundation to build on when designing their new committee system. Unfortunately, there have been no similar in-depth discussions about governance in Sheffield Council for many years. So, Sheffield is starting from scratch, with only 6 months to go before a new committee system must be designed to fit Sheffield’s unique situation. This makes it all the more important that our council immediately contacts the CfPS, so that the process of change can be managed professionally, properly and quickly.

There is no time to waste. Will our council properly prepare for, and embrace, change or continue with its head in the sand?

Woll Newall

It’s Our City! Coordinating Group

10th September 2019