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Sheffield votes for change in groundbreaking referendum

65% of voters call for Council to move from ‘strong leader’ model to committee model of decision-making, after a sustained grassroots campaign supporting change.

Sheffield referendum ballot paper

Sheffield City Council will move to a committee model of decision-making after one of the biggest citizen-led campaigns of its kind in the UK led to 65% of voters calling for a change to the way the Council is run.

The successful It’s Our City campaign, which triggered the vote after gaining over 26,000 signatures from local people, was launched after the Council’s handling of the street tree dispute raised questions about accountability and oversight.

140,186 votes were cast, and 89,670 voted to switch to the committee model.

The result will come as a further blow to the Labour group in Sheffield, which lost its majority on the Council last week on a night which also saw Council Leader Bob Johnson lose his Hillsborough seat to the Greens.

It's Our City campaigner Anne Barr told Now Then:

This is an exciting and important day for Sheffield citizens, with the prospect of a more democratic, more inclusive and more transparent governance structure on the horizon. More collaborative, cross-party working and citizen inclusion now must be the way forward.

Campaigners say the change will ensure that more of the city’s 84 councillors have a say on important decisions.

Under the current leader and cabinet (or ‘strong leader’) model, most decisions are made by a group of ten cabinet councillors chosen from the majority party by the Council Leader. This system was imposed on councils across the country in 2000 under the Blair government.

Sheffield City Council had to take a neutral position in the lead-up to the referendum, but local councillors were free to air their views. Former Council Leader Bob Johnson spoke out against the change on Twitter, while other Labour candidates were in favour.

According to It’s Our City, more than 80% of candidates standing in Thursday’s local election supported the change. The local Liberal Democrats and Green Party all backed a committee system, and the Women's Equality Party and TUSC expressed support when asked by Now Then ahead of the vote.

Even the local Conservative Party support the change, with local leader David Chinchen telling Now Then correspondent Benedict Tetzlaff-Deas that "all elected councillors should be part of decision-making whichever ward they represent."

Since a change in the law in 2011, councils including Belfast, Brighton, Glasgow and a number of London boroughs have decided to switch to a committee system.

How will the new committee system work?

The new system will be designed by the new council administration over the next twelve months and then implemented.

It is expected that six committees will make decisions on transport, business, families, culture, communities and the environment, each made up of 12 to 14 councillors from across the political spectrum.

The chair of each committee will also sit on an overarching Policy & Strategy Committee, the equivalent of the current cabinet group of councillors.

Chaired by the Council Leader, this committee will be responsible for overall strategy and direction and will oversee the development of a rolling 12-month forward plan.

Existing committees where councillors outside the cabinet already have some power, like the Licensing Committee and the Planning Committee, will stay as they are.

What are the possible pitfalls of the new system?

Writing for The Star, ‘business leader’ Henri Murison, Director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, argued ahead of the vote that a change to the committee system would lead to political indecision and a lack of leadership in Sheffield.

“A committee system would cripple Sheffield politically and economically, weakening its ability to make strategic, long-term decisions and diluting its capacity to affect real change for local people,” Murison wrote.

Simon Duffy, director of the Sheffield-based independent think-tank Centre for Welfare Reform, told Now Then that it's "misleading to present the committee system as a fixed thing.”

Dr Duffy said that more councillors being involved in decisions could lead to “much more interesting and wide-ranging changes,” including delegation of real power to neighbourhoods and communities and the use of citizen juries to develop new proposals.

“The challenge, of course, will be for the councillors to reach out, beyond narrow party interest, and work together to define a new democratic constitution for the city.

"Sheffield must become a city for citizens – a beacon for democratic reform in the UK and beyond.”

by Sam Gregory (he/him), Sam Walby (he/him)

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