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New emails reveal officer frustration at “hugely demoralising” conduct of senior Sheffield councillor

Documents released through a transparency request also suggest Cllr Mazher Iqbal was unhappy at a council officer following Covid guidelines for a public event.

Councillor Mazher Iqbal 2021

Councillor Mazher Iqbal, Executive Member for City Futures, Development, Culture and Regeneration.

A transparency request submitted by Now Then to Sheffield City Council has revealed that a senior councillor cancelled expensive consultations on an important city centre site three times at short notice.

The set of emails, released under Freedom of Information rules, reveal frustration from council officers at the last-minute decision-making of Cabinet Member for Development, Mazher Iqbal.

The emails relate to the Castlegate area of the city and plans for the currently empty site that used to house Castle Market.

Cllr Iqbal cancelled a consultation on creating a Castlegate conservation area on the morning it was due to start on 21 February 2019. Would-be attendees were informed via a note left on the door of the venue.

A conservation area would have given greater legal protection to historic sites and made it harder for developers to knock down buildings like the Old Coroner's Court.

No reasons for the cancellation were given at the time, but the emails show Iqbal saying to a council officer: "I wasn’t aware a consultation event had been planned nor was I informed!" This is disputed by the officer, who Now Then understands is the former director of the Castlegate Kickstart programme Simon Ogden.

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An email from Cllr Iqbal to an unknown recipient, almost entirely redacted by the Council.

Cllr Iqbal told Now Then: "I delayed the consultation as we were developing the Local Plan and we wanted to increase the number of people living in the city centre rather than go into the greenbelt."

He also said that the proposed conservation area "hasn't been scrapped", and that it will be "revisited as part of the Local Plan (as will all the conservation areas)". He went on to say that Castlegate has a "unique history, and we want to conserve / preserve / protect the buildings as much as possible."

Second consultation cancelled

Later that year on 18 December, Iqbal cancelled another public consultation on the future of the Castle Market site itself that was due to start in January 2020.

The emails suggest the reason for this was that Iqbal wanted to consult further with his cabinet colleagues (who were all fellow Labour members at the time) about options for the site.

"I’m afraid this puts us in an awkward position with our Castlegate partners," Ogden wrote to Iqbal on 18 December 2019, outlining all the work that had taken place to launch the consultation.

"Following on the previous indefinite postponement of the Conservation Area consultation I am concerned that confidence in our management of public engagement in Castlegate is going to be damaged both within the partnership and wider community unless we can offer a new programme for the Castle site consultation."

The records show that Iqbal did not respond to this email, leading to Ogden sending a further message on 14 January saying he was "worried we’re going to create a bad news story when it should be good news".

Redacted emails and Covid restrictions

Some emails sent by Iqbal have been redacted completely, such as one sent on 17 January 2020 to an unknown recipient. Sheffield Council told us this was exempt from transparency rules because "the Council needs a safe space in which it can develop ideas, debate live issues, and reach decisions away from public scrutiny."

On 18 September 2020 Ogden invited stakeholders in the area to a scaled-back opening ceremony for the Grey to Green 2 project, complying with the 'rule of six' Covid restrictions at the time. The next day Iqbal asks Ogden to clarify who has "taken the decision to exclude" him from the event, but Ogden explains that he had invited Iqbal twice without receiving a response.

Iqbal then instructs him to cancel the opening ceremony – which was due to be attended by South Yorkshire mayor Dan Jarvis – with two days’ notice.

When asked for a reason the cabinet member says that "once again, key stakeholders haven't been invited" – though the event had been downsized to comply with both the letter and spirit of Covid restrictions at the time.

In an email to Martin McKervey of the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, Ogden describes the cancellation as "hugely demoralising for officers, contractors and local businesses who have done their very upmost to complete the works and give Castlegate a positive public boost this weekend."

Coroners court

The Old Coroner's Court on Nursery Street, which is due to be demolished by a property developer.

The records show Ogden raising a number of concerns about Iqbal's conduct with McKervey, who then forwards them on to Iqbal anyway (despite being marked 'IN CONFIDENCE').

Cllr Iqbal told Now Then that "the initial launch was delayed as a number of stakeholders wanted to be included", and that he "didn't want an all-male photograph."

Third consultation cancelled

At the same time Iqbal asks for yet another consultation on the Castle Market site, due to take place in October 2020, to be "paused" indefinitely on the basis that "a number of stakeholders do not want us to proceed."

In response, Ogden says he has "received a range of helpful comments from partners about the materials we plan to present but none asking for the event to be abandoned."

"A great deal of officer and partner time and cost has been expended on the material to date and considerable public interest is evident so presumably you would not wish this to be wasted?" he continues.

No public consultation on Castle Market has since taken place, though in October last year the council was awarded £15 million from the government's 'Levelling Up Fund' to develop the site.

Iqbal was temporarily suspended from his cabinet post in June 2021 after a lengthy complaint about his conduct was sent to the council by Ogden, who retired in August.

This included allegations that Iqbal had wasted public money by repeatedly cancelling consultations on Castlegate and that he had met with property developers without council officers present.

The complaint also relates to an alleged meeting Iqbal held alone with the owners of Kollider (who run the Kommune foodhall) two weeks before he cancelled the October 2020 consultation.

In an email seen by Now Then dated 8 September 2020, Kollider’s Adrian Hackett referenced a meeting with Iqbal on 26 August and, “as requested”, laid out “a high level summary of the proposals discussed”.

The proposals appear to outline a possible legal partnership between Sheffield Council and Kollider Ventures LLP called Castlegate Development LLP (CDLLP), focused on “the development of the old market and castle site adjacent to the River Don,” with the creation of a “visioning statement” led by Kollider.

The email also said the Council would loan CDLLP “the sum of [£500,000] to enable the design team (contracted by CDLLP) to deliver the masterplan and outline planning application”. This was later dismissed as unworkable by other senior officers, who said that wider stakeholders would "go ballistic".

Council investigation

In November last year a council committee found "no evidence" any rules had been broken, but said they were "deeply concerned about the seeming acceptability of the day-to-day behaviours of senior officers and Members illustrated by the complaint."

Their report continued: "In the Sub-committee’s view, [Cllr Iqbal] did not always model the behaviours expected of a senior Member of the Council and this type of behaviour should not have gone unchecked."

Iqbal was then reinstated to his cabinet post for Development, Culture and Regeneration (he was re-elected as a Darnall councillor until 2024 last year).

At the time, a statement by Council Leader Terry Fox implied that reporting by Now Then and the Star had "weaponised" Ogden's complaint "in a bid to disrupt the running of the council and smear a hardworking councillor."

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An email from Cllr Iqbal cancelling the public launch of Grey to Green 2 at two days notice.

Cllr Fox said the committee had "completely exonerated" Iqbal, but the minutes of the meeting show that this is not true.

While finding that Iqbal hadn't technically breached any rules as he hadn't personally benefitted from his behaviour, the committee were so concerned they sent the Council Leader and Chief Executive a set of recommendations "to prevent this situation and any future potential breach of the Code arising again."

These included a review of the protocol that governs relationships between cabinet members and officers, and training sessions for councillors and officers "to workshop good behaviours for our future working within a committee system of governance."

Emails seen by Now Then from this year suggest the first recommendation has not been put into place, while the training sessions have been incorporated into general training for councillors on the move to a committee system.

Both Cllr Iqbal and Sheffield City Council told Now Then that a public consultation will be part of the future plan for the Castle Market site.

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