(A personal view from Ruth Hubbard)

Sheffield voters delivered a triple whammy on 6th May.  The Leader lost his ward, our council emerged under no overall control (NOC) and, resoundingly, citizens and communities won our change of governance referendum.

Not least, this is a crisis of governance, and our council has been sleepwalking into it for at least three years.  Although the word ‘crisis’ has negative connotations, it can also refer to a turning point and – in this case – unprecedented opportunities.  Some of us think we’ve hit the jackpot. 

Governance – the way our council works – can no longer be ignored, deflected, muddied, avoided – as it has been for, well, who knows how long?  A situation of no overall control delivers optimum conditions under which new democratic modern committee arrangements can be designed and developed.  This is primarily because leadership of this major change of governance for our city will no longer be under the control of a few people who were the very ones resisting it.  The few had already provided ample evidence that their primary purpose in designing any new system would be – still – to retain as much control as possible for one party.  Embracing checks and balances was not in the ‘old Cabinet’ DNA, the status quo served them very well.  Clinging on to all power under so-called “strong leadership” and forcing the city to go as far as a referendum was entirely unnecessary, ill-advised, and poor governance in itself.

Understandably, the focus at the moment is on the immediate arrangements the parties can come to in order to form a working administration (and some enjoy the heady dose of party political manoeuvring and intrigue this comes with).  But while individuals can make comebacks and political balance can shift (less than 12 months to the next local elections folks), a sober view knows that it is the change to modern committee governance that is the most significant outcome of last week.  The outcome of the next twelve months will be a new (council) constitutional settlement for Sheffield, binding for a minimum of ten years.  Even as this provides much less of an immediate ‘hit’ of political intrigue, it is to these deeper shifts that we need to pay real and sustained attention.

From the grassroots, we have created a situation whereby we will have some basic democratic conditions in place for our city council going forward.  Many of us did not know that we had to fight for the basic democratic right for us all to be represented in council decision-making (through all our elected councillors), but it turned out that was necessary.  Our collective call has been for governance that is more democratic.  We have generated the largest campaign of its kind in this country, ever, including 20,000 citizen to citizen conversations, that has illuminated a shared direction of travel – from all across our city and its different communities.  This will be a lot for our council to live up to, and after all that we have seen and experienced.  Changing and improving council governance involves significant structural and cultural change, alongside a rewrite of our council constitution.  Our council has 12 months to make the changes and the referendum result is binding for a minimum of ten years.  

We have to shift from a toxic tribal party politics – and council leadership chronically disconnected from citizens – to inclusive, collaborative, transparent, resilient and accountable governance conditions that fit – and are fit for – our city and communities, and the big challenges and inequalities we face.  We have some horrible legacies still to be unpicked, not least from the street tree campaigns (to whom It’s Our City! actions owe a big debt) and some big challenges such as recovery from covid (and economic situation), city inequalities, and the climate emergency.   Improvements will not happen overnight and there will be many errors and missteps, nor should we expect to end up with perfect conditions.

So what happens now, what should we be looking for?  I’m one of the people at the heart of It’s Our City! that helped coordinate the community campaign for change, including being part of the 20,000 citizen to citizen conversations about local governance.  Here is just a quick personal take and a few thoughts (in no particular order) in the wake of the referendum result, about what we should be looking out for – small signs that things might be shaping up for change.

First, I’m looking for proper acknowledgement of the scale of the challenge.  This will not be only about words – what matters is what happens. 

The neglect of governance generally is serious and longstanding.  And strong leadership in Sheffield has had virtually no effective checks on executive power.   Change from Sheffield’s version of “strong leadership” is inseparable from serious shifts in culture, and improvements in practices.  This is not about opinion.  Our council governance has, for example, brazenly exhibited many of the high risk conditions and behaviours identified in the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny’s (CfGS) Framework of Risk and Resilience.  We are still at a point of high risk, and real damage has been done.  Council governance is a little like the wiring system of a house – there’s only so long you can ignore the lightbulbs blowing, the frayed wires, and the plugs sparking at the surface before you have to pay attention to what’s going on in the system.

It is a serious governance problem, in itself, that the ruling group and council as a whole did not – long ago – listen, respond and change.   It is citizens and communities of Sheffield (as well as other stakeholders) who have long been pulling the alarm chord on city governance.  This includes many, over a long period of time, both in different sectors and in particular communities and over specific issues – this is not just It’s Our City! though that is obviously significant.  In the end, we had to use our community rights and legal force.    

Council governance is not addressing the climate emergency, it is not recovery from covid, it is not building a sustainable local economy, it is not resolving city inequalities and does not directly provide good services.  However, our capacity and ability as a city to face the big challenges are, in significant part, dependent upon the quality and competence of our local democratic governance systems, and the confidence we can have in them – and they can also have some direct impacts.  But like the wiring system of a house, or a backbone, we need governance to be as robust as it can be, to enable and support the functioning of everything else.  Nothing can happen well if we don’t pay attention to governance.  And this is very far from being simply a technocratic or party political (brokering) exercise.

Second, we must see an inclusive design and development phase for the new system, and this must have demonstrable impact on outcomes.

Of course, having entirely initiated, communicated, researched, led and coordinated, networked, developed, publicised, delivered and won change convincingly, It’s Our City! is waiting to see the offer on the table for community (and stakeholder) involvement in shaping the specific objectives, design and development of the new model, with a clear commitment that this involvement will have significant impact.  This is not contentious, it is simple good practice.  Meaningful stakeholder involvement – and utilising considerable local thinking – could happen in a whole variety of ways and it will be interesting to see what the thinking is.   

Third, we should expect outside and independent expertise to be brought in to lead, or help lead, change. 

Outside expertise was rejected by the previous strong leadership (and part of a damaging pattern of insularity and keeping control at all costs).  Longstanding failure (or perhaps the lack of power and influence) to act implicates many in our council.  Achieving system change, with all this means, is not easy.

So we shall need some highly skilled and knowledgeable help.  We also have much local expertise and this includes some national / international players at the forefront of thinking and practice on different aspects of governance and I’d certainly expect our council to want to bring them on board unlike previously.        

Councils normally get some kind of constitutional working group for this kind of change/improvement and external involvement and expertise is what we need to see.  Our still new (baptism of fire) Chief Executive is also vital for championing and driving change.

Fourth, I never again want to hear the Big City Conversation (endlessly) cited as though it was anything to do with council governance. 

It was not.  It had some purpose but in governance terms was designed explicitly not to talk to citizens and communities about how the council works, and also to deflect attention from the far more extensive work actually doneon local governance by citizens and communities together, and from the council’s own actual ‘secret survey’ on governance.  It was another strategy employed not to listen, and to block change. 

Fifth, whilst we need to see a clear road-map to change, the process of achieving change will be messy and iterative. 

This has been little or no apparent preparation for change because it was being resisted, and alarm calls ignored and deflected.  The so-called governance review held only as a result of petition submission was poor quality and stakeholder views largely ignored.  Any ‘diagnosis’ produced is unclear (let alone shared), and recommendations had no discernible impact and were so general as to not provide clear direction and usefulness (another high risk factor for governance).  This means that processes of diagnosis, design, development and planning will now necessarily be all rather more jumbled up and messy than they might have been.  It will be better to embrace this and exercise tolerance than to expect, or seek to impose, a simplistic linearity – we are just not in that position and things are complicated.  And a certain ‘messiness’ can also be good and creative too.

Thinking through should be careful, thoughtful and not too rushed – and certainly not gung ho.

Sixth, we need to see a championing and explicit visibility of good practice for Sheffield. 

The unbalanced strong leadership model practised in the city (and political party warring) has crowded out other vital things.  We are, in some areas (e.g. in terms of meaningful community participation) 10-20 years behind the most up-to-date research, thinking and practice. 

Embracing and championing good practice is not about a slavish application of blueprints but of lively and thoughtful engagement to enable us to draw on these in planning forward for all of us. We should expect our council officers to be champions here, but also see a valuing of those across the city engaged in forward-thinking and innovations who can bring much to the table (and too numerous to mention).   There needs to be clear commitment to good practice from our elected representatives too – emphasising the importance of good practice not least acts as a bulwark to unhealthy or damaging reductions to party politicking (and, in some cases, we have previously seemed to have policy making almost entirely insulated from any such notion of good practice).

Seventh, the rollout of Local Area Committees should be rethought (or at least reframed). 

These were introduced under the so-called Community Empowerment policy and rammed through Cabinet and an Extraordinary Council Meeting in the space of 24 hours in March.  The policy was generated behind closed doors by a handful of people with the input, oversight, involvement and enhancements of no one else.  (Of course, strong leadership enabled precisely this kind of thing to happen.) 

No-one – but no-one – thinks that meaningful community involvement and power in local communities and neighbourhoods is not important.  Its lack in Sheffield has been something of a travesty.  Many – including It’s Our City! – have highlighted the need for meaningful power devolved to communities, the ways this might happen, and the important thinking that goes alongside this.

But no other council in the country would even attempt what Sheffield’s few did in this instance.  It is policy making of the poorest kind (so poor as to be shocking), does not bode well for successful outcomes, is not ‘owned’, and is quite the insult, to all the work done in diverse communities across the city.  The spectacle of so-called community empowerment imposed by the few is highly ironic (and yet another high risk behaviour for governance). 

The roll-out of the LACs is also extremely vulnerable to party politicking of the worst kind.  Introduced to great fanfare, the introduction and ramming through of the policy was clearly utilised for party gain and the quite explosive council meeting demonstrated this clearly. (I can already see the party political football going forward.  This could well result in a kind of ‘beauty parade’ of local area initiatives exploited for more party political argument and, possibly, to even subtly play to an agenda of trying to set different communities in our city against others – that we have seen something of before from some local politicians – and with which we should not collude.)

As a city we should, of course, be able to confidently try things out where appropriate.  At the very least, the roll out of the LACs should be reframed so that they are generative of appropriate thinking, ownership and enhancements.  Re-articulation and re-working should form part of the overall new constitutional settlement we are now working towards.

Eighth, we should – finally – expect a tree enquiry.

Whilst there may now be a tentative, collaborative way forward in managing our street trees themselves, the damage done has been considerable, and much remains unknown and unresolved.  Despite repeatedly saying they had “learnt the lessons” this is self-evidently untrue as otherwise the response to citizens organising for governance change would have been very different.  The layer upon layer of governance confusion, lack of accountability, secrecy and weaponising in the street tree crisis has not been lanced, lessons have not been learnt.  We should expect to see a tree enquiry that will – alongside anything else – uncover poor practice and weaknesses in governance.  After what happened……

Ninth, some councillors will – and should – move on.

We have already seen one sitting councillor announce that they will not be re-standing for election next year and we should expect more to indicate the same.

Under a modern committee model, all councillors have real roles in relation to council decision-making.  In a modern committee model many councillors develop specialisms in the areas to which they contribute and there are opportunities to develop expertise.  Some may be rather exposed in a situation where they will have to adjust and up their game; others may simply not believe in collaboration, compromise and inclusive decision-making, nor want to take on the responsibility and increased accountability  

We should expect at least a few councillors to decide the required changes are not for them and to decide to step down.  At the same time, we should look – and advocate – for good quality, external training, support and supervision for councillors to adapt to new roles and ways of working in the democratic stewardship of our city and communities.

Tenth, we should embrace the spotlight, and the spin-offs.

Sheffield will be the largest city in the country to develop more democratic modern committee governance (and the first of the so-called ‘core cities’).  What we are doing has attracted attention from round the country, from Cornwall to the far north-east.  In the wake of our referendum result a Leeds councillor resigned and started a change of governance petition, one has already started in Barnsley, and It’s Our City! are in demand around the country at groups and events.  We should embrace this all and be proud of what we are doing, and trying to achieve in our city. 

There are also other potential ‘spin-offs’.  The collective call has been for more democracy and democratic governance in our city.  But what also about the ideas this brings to the table in other areas – what, for example, does a local economy look like that is ‘democratised’ i.e. works for the benefit of all and for things like social impact?  These kinds of ideas have great currency and bring potential benefit to us all – we should work with them, and maximise the benefits of what we are doing. 

RH May 2021