Nigel Slack is an active citizen. He asks questions of Sheffield City Council and pokes his nose into public policy. Not that he’s writing repeated letters about the 84 bus missing its 13:54 departure for the second time this month. He’s more interested in finding out how the Council’s multi-billion pound budget is spent, under what conditions, and for whose profit. The motive for all his work is summed up in the title of his blog: The Public Interest.

Now Then last spoke to Nigel in 2014, near the start of his adventures at Town Hall. As he represents a great deal of what this magazine is about, we wanted to catch up with him to find out what, if anything, has changed.

When we met, he’d recently persuaded the Sheffield City Partnership Board – one of the many decision-making bodies in the city which Nigel scrutinises, but which most of us have never heard of – to take evidence on Sheffield’s heritage economy. Perhaps, his thinking goes, if city leaders can be persuaded of the financial case for heritage, we might see better planning decisions being made.

Perhaps, because speaking to Nigel four years on, it’s clear he thinks the Council has become less open and less engaged, not more. “It’s very difficult to get honest and complete information regarding an awful lot of stuff.” He says there’s a real ‘bunker mentality’ at Town Hall.

While acknowledging the constraints of austerity, Nigel argues there’s a real democratic deficit at Sheffield City Council. It has taken 12 months to respond to his complaints about councillors. The recent consultation for the Gleadless Valley Masterplan happened after it was published, and anyone familiar with the consultation exercises carried out under the Streets Ahead contract with regards to the city’s street trees will be similarly cynical about this Council’s exercises in engagement.

Nigel points out that the Democratic Engagement Department has 11 members of staff, as opposed to 84 councillors, while the Press and Communications team feels increasingly like a partisan propaganda unit, loyally fighting the Council’s corner and frequently putting out statements itself, instead of elected representatives doing so. He’s currently trying to get figures and budgets for both departments.

Slack is also a useful pair of eyes and ears around Town Hall. He recently overheard a council officer, a local government civil servant, tell a councillor that they “wouldn’t be able to cope” if they were given all the information relating to a decision in their brief. What does it say about our city that our elected representatives aren’t being given all the information about crucial policy decisions?

If less information is forthcoming than ever, says Slack, at least he knows he’s looking in the right place. The greater the resistance, he calculates, the bigger the problem. For example, the infamous Streets Ahead highways contract. Nigel requested details over and over when the contract was first signed in 2012. The released version was so redacted that it was ‘almost useless’ when it came to answering key questions about the contract – questions which have subsequently done so much to undermine politics in Sheffield.

Nigel is also an invaluable resource for those wishing to understand and report on Sheffield. I’ve written a number of articles for Now Then, on subjects ranging from tax to street trees. Each one has started with a conversation with Nigel and he regularly advises other interested citizens.

His 12-month stint presenting Talking Sheffield on Sheffield Live! TV has recently finished, but for a whole year, entirely voluntarily, he brought informed and important discussion into Sheffield households on a weekly basis. He’s also just started his first adult education course, on ‘Power To The People & Devolution’, with Sheffield For Democracy and the Workers’ Education Association.

Nigel is a one-man transparency campaign. In the face of diminished Council resources and increasingly poor decision-making by our city’s leaders, his work is not only an invaluable resource, but a real source of hope for those of us who refuse to believe that Sheffield’s current leadership is the best this city has to offer.

Please support Nigel’s vital work by visiting his blog below and checking out the donations page.

thepublicinterestsheffield.blogspot.co.uk
@SheffCityNigel

Laurence Peacock