Campaigners have demanded Sheffield City Council scraps their current strong leader structure in favour of a committee system which they claim is more democratic.
Under the current system, many decisions are not discussed at full council. Executive decision makers comprise a board of ten cabinet members.
As council leader, Julie Dore sits on this cabinet and appoints the other nine. Decisions also pass through a scrutiny committee, who can make recommendations but not overturn an executive decision. This system became widely adopted nationally under the Local Government Hierarchy Act.
The campaign group Its Our City favour an old-style committee system, where decisions are passed through a number of subcommittees before being passed at full council. They argue that this system is more democratic because every councillor has direct input by sitting on at least one committee in the decision making process. The composition of each committee would represent the proportion of votes each party got at local election. Sheffield People’s Petition needs 20,956 signatures (5% of the electorate) by 25 August 2019 to trigger a referendum under the powers granted by the Localism Act 2011.
According to Sheffield People’s Petition Coordinator Anne Barr, at the three month mark the petition has close to 6000 signatures.
Ms Barr said: “We’re trying to do something about the way the council runs. We’re not criticising the council, but the way it runs under the strong leader system.
“74 out of 84 councillors actually don’t have much power, if any. It’s bad enough that the majority party councillors don’t have that power, but of course if you’re an opposition councillor, you have zilch power really. Why are we all voting for a councillor if they can’t represent us? There are very good councillors of all parties, who do their very best to represent their constituencies. It’s the system that doesn’t allow them to have that input.”
Alison Teal, a Green Party councillor who was arrested last year for protesting the council’s controversial decision to cut down thousands of trees across the city, also supports the petition.
Councillor Teal said: “I am very limited in what I am able to do, it’s really hard to scrutinise decisions that the cabinet make.
“This current council’s secrecy and lack of openness means that we don’t really get to have a say.
“It’s very hard to get information about important decisions and you often have to do FOI’s.”
Supporters of the petition are optimistic about gathering enough signatures over the coming months to trigger a referendum.
However, Julie Dore has expressed concerns about the Its Our City proposals.
The cabinet leader said: “Every Labour councillor on council has a say in making decisions. We’ve got 53 members of the council, and they get involved in policy decision making. So when the cabinet finally make the decision we’re making it on behalf of the Labour group because it’s a Labour administration.
“When I go to election I go to election as a Labour councillor, and people vote for that. We have a party structure. The cabinet make the decisions, and there is a scrutiny system where opposition councillors in particular get to scrutinise council and make recommendations.
“One of the advantages of having an executive is you know who to hold to account. Who would you hold to account in a committee?”
Cabinet member for Transport and Development Jack Scott added: “A cabinet is a committee system already, where we work together, we work as a team, we make things happen, we get things done.
“No big city is making the proposed shift at all, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, no-one’s doing that, and there’s a reason. You need to have accountability in our political system. When it’s a committee of more than 10 people making that decision, you don’t get that same accountability, and I think it’s hard for people to hold their politicians to account if it isn’t obvious who’s been making decisions.”
“I also think it’s important we have a split between scrutiny and cabinet as well, and you don’t get that in a committee system, you have the committee that scrutinises decisions and makes them. I think it’s good that we have a strong robust system of scrutiny which holds me and my colleagues to account.”
Sheffield People’s Petition co-ordinator Anne Barr gave a campaign progress report three months in: