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All Change: From remarkable referendum to a new Council model

In a new series, active citizen Nigel Slack charts Sheffield Council's move to a new Modern Committee system of decision making, following Sheffield's overwhelming vote for change in May 2021.

Sheffield town hall tower EDIT
Raygar He (Unsplash)

Sheffield is changing.

It started in 2018 with a petition by a community group called It's Our City. Tired of the seeming unfettered power and lack of accountability of the ‘leader and cabinet’ model of decision making at Sheffield City Council, campaigners wanted the city to shift to what they saw as a more democratic, cross-party style of governance.

Against the odds their city-wide petition was successful, gaining signatures from more than 5% of the city's population. This triggered a referendum in Sheffield asking whether voters wanted to keep the leader and cabinet model or adopt a new ‘modern committee’ system of decision making.

In late 2019 the Council held a select committee-style inquiry responding to the upcoming referendum. They developed 10 design principles, later refined to five ‘critical ambitions’, for the way the city might be run in future, to be adopted whichever way the referendum result fell. The resulting report said:

There is no ‘perfect’ governance structure – there are advantages and disadvantages to all models – it is how we operate within those structures that will ultimately determine how successful they are.

Despite being interrupted by the pandemic, the referendum was passed by Sheffield's voters in May 2021 and since then the Council has been working to prepare for the change, which legally has to happen by May 2022.

Over the next six months I hope to share the story of this change through Now Then, plotting where we came from and where we are now.

Sheffield referendum ballot paper

As an ‘active citizen’, every week I spend time and energy scrutinising our city’s decisions and decision-making structures. So I am part of this process myself, working directly with the Council and its stakeholders to try and make sure that the approaches to engaging the public on this transition are accessible and effective.

With 2021 local elections throwing the Council into a state of 'no overall control', Labour and Green Party councillors are currently running the city through a so-called Co-operative Executive Committee. This is significant, and a first for Sheffield – previous periods of NOC were run by either the Labour or Lib Dem parties as 'minority' councils.

The transition toward a committee system within Council is being steered by a new governance committee chaired by Labour councillor and Deputy Leader Julie Grocutt. This again involves a cross-party membership, with the chairs and vice chairs of what are being termed transition committees (see section 3), which give officers and councillors a chance to practice cross-party co-operative working before the new model is adopted.

A new Deputy Director is in place to do much of the leg work and, after setting up a team of officers to support the transition, we are now into a phase of reviewing the work from 2019 and getting new input from residents and other stakeholders in the city. More on that in my next Now Then article...

The Council has brought in independent advisors from the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny, who have done similar jobs in other parts of the country, and as mentioned I too am in the mix as an active citizen, trying to ensure that the Council responds to what the people of Sheffield want.

There have been a number of in-person and online public events, hosted under the banner of the Big City Conversation. You may have spotted some of these and even attended if you were able. I was at most of them and the work that members of the public were putting in was considerable and really inspiring.

Sheffielders have a clear and abiding love for their city and they hold ideas and possible innovations that could genuinely influence the direction of this new decision-making system. Council officers have been delighted by this fact – they can’t stop telling elected representatives how lucky they are to have the Sheffield public as a vital resource during this transition.

An update on the transition work was presented at the governance committee meeting on 30 November. Decisions at that committee will feed into a future proposal to go before the whole Council in January 2022. In the meantime a new inquiry has been launched that will take evidence from experts, local democracy organisations and individuals.

Learn more

More on all these changes in the next article, after the Council meeting on 14 January 2022.

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