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All Change: What a new committee system in Sheffield Council could look like

Active citizen Nigel Slack is charting Sheffield Council's move to a new Modern Committee system of decision making, following Sheffield's overwhelming vote for change in May 2021. In this piece, he looks at the Council's early plans for new structures.

Sheffield town hall tower EDIT
Raygar He (Unsplash)

The impact of the Omicron variant on the progress of the transition to a committee system within Sheffield Council late last year was immediate. Certain decisions could not be made and the plan to present a draft proposal to January's Council meeting fell by the wayside. But that's not to say nothing has been achieved in the interim.

On 3 December a couple of roundtable events took place, at which public participation charity Involve, working on Council engagement strategies, asked community groups and residents how this transition might best happen. Some of this caused pause for thought within the Council's transition team – more on this, as it develops, in my next Now Then article.

There were also the public inquiry sessions I mentioned in my last article, which gathered remarkably consistent evidence, covering everything from the number and size of new Council committees to issues around clarity in the roles and responsibilities of councillors and, most crucially, the involvement of the public in decision making.

A new framework

Following further Christmas and New Year delays, the transition team finally presented the first framework proposal to the governance committee meeting for approval last week.

Officers were at pains to point out this was the first opportunity to make firm decisions on a new system before they added detail, with content further defined in the form of a new 'constitution' ready for the Council's AGM in May.

The report outlines five recommendations, with the first including several sections that detail the shape of the proposed new committee system. From May 2022 there will be "seven themed policy committees," politically proportionate and closely aligned to the established functions of the Council:

  • Education, Children & Families
  • Adult Health & Social Care
  • Housing
  • Transport, Regeneration & Climate
  • Communities, Parks & Leisure
  • Waste & Street Scene
  • Economic Development & Skills
SCC Committee System Structure 1

Proposed new Policy Committees within Sheffield City Council, January 2022.

The seven geographically-focussed Local Area Committees, set up by the Council in 2021 to "promote the involvement of local people in the democratic process and to bring decision making closer to local people," may be linked with the Communities committee. Non-policy committees, like Planning, Licensing and Standards, will not be affected by the transition.

Aligning the new policy committees with the current functional and budgetary divisions within Council is thought less risky for maintaining effective operations as the new system is brought in. This may change over time as experience shakes out the problems and alternative solutions arise.

The discussions amongst committee members on 25 January tended to centre around comparisons with current working practices and the desire of some to keep procedures that are no longer relevant, hence a decision not to make a decision on 'call-in' procedures.

The detail of councillor's comments is in the webcast. For me, many showed a timidity about the transition process and the reality of the massive effect this change will – and absolutely should – have on working practices and the cultural changes needed to really take advantage of new Council structures.

How could things be different?

To be clear, before this transition and the start of 'no overall control' within Council in May 2021, most decisions were made between officers and individual cabinet members, working up proposals for new policies. All key issues would be discussed in private by the ruling majority executive (Cabinet) then voted through, on the nod, at a public meeting. Arguably, everything the public experienced was theatre.

Now we have no majority for any single party on the Council, and with the incoming Modern Committee structure, this will no longer be the case.

From May 2022 decisions will be made by cross-party committees of 8 to 10 members, still working with officers to develop new policies but now subject to early challenge and scrutiny by cross-party members long before decisions are made. It will then be the job of the members to change the proposals where needed and promote a collaborative decision. As long as 'no overall control' continues, and potentially beyond, this co-operative approach should – in theory, at least – lead to better decision making.

The links and further reading above will add much needed detail. For governance geeks like me, the various reports are a mine of useful (and not so useful) information. Further clarification will be provided by the next meeting of the governance committee on 22 February, with a finalised version of the committee system put before Council in late March.

Personally, I hope this will include more detail on the ways the people of the city can, beyond the new Local Areas Committees, become involved in the real decision making of the Council. I believe that's what lots of residents expected when signing the It's Our City petition and voting for change in last year's local referendum.

Next 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

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