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Excitement, deflation and positivity in Sheffield’s new Local Area Committees

Sheffield Council has devolved budgets to seven LACs across the city. But what decision making power they will have, and how they can spend this money, is yet to be defined.

Sheffield skyline from tall building Upperthorpe
Gary Butterfield

Democracy is all about energy and excitement. Its promise is that society can be more equal, inclusive and fair if we properly engage and involve people in how decisions are made, right on our doorstep. After a year and a half of a pandemic where we feel we’ve lost control over our most basic freedoms, democracy offers a heady ideal of choice, empowerment and engagement.

In this spirit, Sheffield City Council has been trying this year to improve democracy in our communities. Earlier in the year councillors voted to introduce new Local Area Committees to, in the Council website’s illustrious words, “put decision-making at the heart of local areas – where you, a resident of Sheffield, make the decisions.” They even introduced a new slogan for these committees: Engage, Empower, Enable. Big words and big expectations.

Last Thursday, on a warm evening at Greystones Primary School Hall, I attended a meeting of the first of these Local Area Committees, or LACs. Presumably high on the ideals of empowerment, engagement, en-whatever, a socially distanced and (largely) polite hall full of Sheffielders did as well. Did the meeting live up to our heady ideals?

What are LACs? What do they do? Do they have money?

First, let’s take a step back. To understand these new LACs, what they are and how they work, it’s important to understand the City Council.

Since local government austerity started in earnest around a decade ago and Community Assemblies were abolished, elected councillors have sat in the Town Hall – that imposing Victorian monolith in the city centre – taking decisions about how the Council’s annual budget is spent. Often they've used big chunks of the budget to purchase services from private contractors like Amey and Veolia. This has sometimes proved controversial, particularly during the infamous tree felling scandal.

In 2021, our Labour-led council voted through proposals to send some of their power to seven committees covering every area of the city. The committee meeting I attended, South West, is meant to make decisions for four electoral wards – Dore & Totley, Ecclesall, Fulwood and Crookes & Crosspool. Each Ward has three councillors who all sit on the relevant committee, so there are 12 councillors in total on the SouthWest committee, three from all four wards.

At the meeting we were told that the seven LACs are going to meet four times a year. At each meeting the Council will give whoever turns up or submits a question an opportunity to participate in raising issues about their area. Councillors will take these questions, and then engage residents in other ways, to make decisions about how to spend money to improve local areas.

A trial run

This first meeting seemed like a bit of a trial run. There were all manner of questions about local life, from traffic congestion and anti-social behaviour to improving education, cleaning rivers and publicising the committees themselves. Councillors said they’d follow up with those who run local services in response to these questions.

In the meeting, we were treated to presentations about how much money committees have been given by the Council for their yearly budget and what issues they can make decisions about. £700,000 is the figure – £100,000 per committee – plus some smaller pots of money.

If this seems like a lot, bear in mind that this year Sheffield City Council will spend £191.7 million on capital projects alone. At the moment, as one terse councillor noted, the South West LAC has barely enough funding to do maintenance on the primary school hall roof we were all sitting under.

Terser still, we learnt that until the Council makes a final decision next summer about how much funding and power LACs will have, there are deflatingly few issues the committees can use their funds for. We were told the funds could be spent on clearing up graffiti. As someone who quite likes some of the graffiti in south west Sheffield, this left me a bit nonplussed.

Deflation – and positivity

Feeling deflated isn’t unusual in local democracy.

Britain is what academics call a power-hoarding ‘modified majoritarian’ state. This is technical jargon for central government dictating what local councils can and can’t do legally, getting the final say on how much money councils are given from a central pot, and setting limits on how much they can spend.

I came away from Thursday’s meeting feeling slightly deflated. But I also heard councillors and residents talk about potential – about how LACs might be small, but they can build something meaningful by collaborating with others in the city who do have funds, time and energy. They were making the case for why we need more local democracy, more engagement and more real power given to residents.

It’s not that ‘engage, empower, enable’ is a bad slogan in itself. But maybe it’s a slogan that others can take as a rallying call for what we need to do as a city to change how Sheffield does democracy.

Local area committees won’t do it alone – they need our support.

LAC Meetings

The first meetings of the other six Local Area Committees are:

Sheffield East
Weds 22 Sept, 6pm at English Institute of Sport

Sheffield North East
Thurs 23 Sept, 5pm at Concord Sports Centre

Sheffield Central
Mon 27 Sept, 6pm at Bamforth Park Meeting Room

Sheffield South East
Tues 28 Sept, 6pm at Fire and Rescue Training Centre

Sheffield North
Thurs 30 Sept, 7pm at The Venue

Sheffield South
Weds 13 Oct, 6pm at Gleadless Valley Methodist Church

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