Community Power – Sheffield Citizens submit legally binding change of governance petition – the largest ever in the country.

On Friday 23rd August at 2pm at the Town Hall members and supporters of the community group It’s Our City! will deliver the Sheffield People’s Petition with over 25,000 local voter signatures.  This is more than 1 in 20 of Sheffield’s voters.  Sheffielders want a say on whether the Council continues with the ‘strong leader’ model of governance, or move to a (modern) committee system.

This is the culmination of a year long, concerted, community effort.  Over 10,000 signatures have been collected via an online petition, but the bulk – more than 15,000 – have been gathered by volunteers week in week out, face-to-face, on wet and sunny days, in streets and parks of Sheffield.

Carole Sutherland from It’s Our City! explains:

“Every signature represents a conversation about local governance and these have been one of the best things about the petition – the response has been phenomenal and many have thanked us for what we are doing.  People have been astonished – but not in a good way – to find out a bit more about how the Council constitution and Sheffield’s ‘strong leader’ model operates – to exclude the voice of the vast majority of Sheffielders.  They have asked lots of questions.  For many it helps explain a lot about the widespread frustration at what people see as our failing council.”

The Localism Act 2011 sets out the mechanism of collecting signatures from 5% of voters to trigger a city-wide referendum on the issue, which must happen by the next ordinary election day – the local elections in May, 2020.  Upon verification of the 5% (20,092 signatures) the council is legally bound to hold the referendum and to carry out the result of it; unlike other petitions or advisory referenda, this one has legal force.

Campaigners say that the people of Sheffield are demanding that city governance reflects how Sheffield communities want to live together and care for each other.  They believe that at times of cuts in council budgets, how decisions are made becomes even more important.  People and communities want a new, modern Committee system designed to deliver a number of improvements in local democracy and decision-making. 

Firstly they want to see all elected representatives play – and be seen to play – a meaningful role in decision-making.  Without this, the vast majority of Sheffielders effectively have no representation or voice. 

Secondly, they want to see a committee system that respects and builds in participation and effective partnerships – with communities, other stakeholders, and utilising much more local (and national) expertise; communities want to be listened to, and they want to see better decisions. 

Thirdly, people are demanding a committee system where it is clear political parties are working together more effectively, and that generate proper and constructive dialogue between themselves and with others for the good of Sheffield – communities are absolutely sick of the endless party political point-scoring.  

Campaigners know that many other councils have achieved these kinds of improvements to local democracy through getting rid of the ‘strong leader’ model, and in designing and implementing modern committee systems.  They believe the whole of Sheffield will welcome such improvements.

Member of the coordinating group, Shelley Cockayne says:

“There are some who think that this has been a fool’s errand, but quite the contrary, it has been eye-opening, reaffirming and educational for both volunteers and for those who have signed.  To know that this petition has legal power is the icing on the cake.

Our dedicated team of volunteers have had over 15,000 conversations with the Sheffield public, and while a challenge, it has been very constructive in informing the public about the basics of how the council works, with many not realising how closed our council really is. Lots of people think that it is run on a committee model and are shocked to hear that it isn’t.  They want their councillors and their area to have real input.”

The Democratic Service department of Sheffield council has one month to verify the signatures on Sheffield People’s Petition and confirm that it has reached 20,092 signatures.  It will be tense month for volunteers but, with an extra 5000+ signatures to compensate for rejections, they are confident that they have surpassed the target and, after a well-deserved break, will be planning for the next phase.