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All Change: As One Chapter Ends, Another Begins

It's official - after a remarkable grassroots campaign and resulting referendum, Sheffield City Council is changing its governance model in May. 

City centre town hall 4
Rachel Rae Photography

The Extraordinary Council Meeting on Wednesday 23 March drew a line under the Sheffield City Council’s ‘leader and cabinet’ model, paving the way for a new ‘modern committee’ system beginning in May 2022. The remarkable story that began with the grassroots It's Our City! campaign is not over, but this latest decision shows us what the future holds.

The success of that community petition, the resulting city-wide referendum campaign and the successful vote in May 2021 meant our Council was legally obliged to engage in a conversation with residents, communities, experts and others about how to develop a system that responded to the people of Sheffield's wishes. It had to be a system that involved all councillors in decision making, fit for a modern city of nearly 600,000 people and a budget or more than £4bn.

Thankfully, the city has been up to the task – if initially with a fair bit of reluctance from the main political parties. New staff with experience of this process were appointed, a cross-party committee was set up to drive the whole thing forward, and the Council’s Big City Conversation – paused due to Covid – was restarted.

Those following this series of articles will know how complex some of this development work has been. The pace, needed to reach milestone decisions along the way, has been significant and the approach to engaging with residents has been the best I've experienced in many years of scrutinising Sheffield City Council.

Last week’s meeting was interesting. I have been to many, many Council meetings and this was the most well-behaved, ‘adult’ one I’ve attended.

The agenda was effectively a single item, the 'Committee System Structure', although on-topic public questions were allowed. The detailed reports can be found at the bottom of the agenda and webcast. The final draft of the Governance Committee proposals came forward with only minor changes, following the meeting on 9 March, being proposed and seconded by Cllr Julie Grocutt (Labour Chair of the committee) and Cllr Penny Baker (Lib Dem Deputy Chair).

The final decision was fairly simple, though the background is complex and extensive, amounting to one main proposal and two minor amendments. The main decision was whether to adopt the 96 recommendations within the Governance Committee report of 9 March as the basis for governance in Sheffield City Council starting in May 2022, following the local elections and the Annual General Meeting, where a completed new constitution would be adopted.

A successful amendment from the Labour Party aimed to ensure that all the new policy committees were bound by the recent budget decision for 2022/23 and must work within those constraints. This amendment worried me a little as being restrictive and inflexible, because the impact of cross-committee decisions and emergency issues, like Covid, might be adversely affected if committees cannot work together to amend spending plans for the overall better use of Council money and assets.

A failed amendment from the Lib Dems aimed to predetermine the areas for the devolution of further powers to the newly-formed Local Area Committees. Again this amendment concerned me, coming before LACs have been in place for 12 months and before the experience of the new committee system can properly guide these considerations.

And with that, the decision was made: in May 2022, Sheffield will wake up to a new modern committee system running the business of its Council.

The debate itself was notable for its level of consensus, both in comments and in the vote. To choose a couple of points that I picked up on:

  • Lib Dem councillor Penny Baker, in seconding the proposal, commented on the many pages of reports they had to read and also on their approach: “We listened hard.” The changes in attitude amongst some of the committee members attests to this.
  • Labour and Council Leader Terry Fox, commenting on the city leadership, said: “We have totally embraced this change.”
  • Outgoing Green councillor Alison Teal, in recommending the proposals and proffering advice for the coming changes, said: “Embrace and harness the energy of our amazing residents.”

So much has been achieved over the few months of this transition process. It has been frustrating, exciting and humbling to have been a part of it. I hope we leave the city's communities much more central to the decision making of the Council.

I and many others will continue to monitor progress and to hold the Council to account in properly fulfilling both the letter and the spirit of this historic decision. The next chapter begins.

Previously in series

All Change: The Devil's in the Detail

Active citizen Nigel Slack is charting Sheffield Council's move to a new Modern Committee system. Here he looks at new details from Council - like resident representation on committees and councillor voting records.

More All Change

More Democracy & Activism

Trade unions: a complicated story

Trade unions are often accused of being anti-environmental, anti-democratic and out of touch. Ben Manovitch looks at what the future of organising needs to look like.

More Democracy & Activism