Sheffield- Where democracy goes to die.

At last, Sheffield City Council has been forced to apologise to the people of the city over its handling of the destruction of thousands of street trees. Forced apologies never seem sincere, especially when the first attempt doesn’t include the word “sorry”. Now Councillor Mark Jones has rephrased his apology and there are even murmurings of a public inquiry. That is what is needed. Those that have lied in court should be facing prosecution, those that were responsible for the lies and malfeasance outlined in the report should resign. Campaigners who risked their liberty to protect street trees should not just receive an apology and compensation for their costs, but should also be honoured by the city. A plaque at the front of the town hall, near the memorial for the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932, would be a great idea!  

A forthcoming book by tree activists Calvin Payne and Simon Crump is eagerly awaited so we can all read the inside story of those on the frontline of the dispute.  

I would be more charitable about the Council apology if it was clear that they had learnt their lesson regarding lack of transparency and openness. Last week I attended my first virtual Sheffield City Council meeting. Having submitted my questions within the 2-day notice, I went fully expecting to hear some answers. I wanted to understand what is happening regarding the plans to build a new dual carriageway from Park Square to Granville Square, through Sheaf Valley Park. I asked

1.What alternative plans are being considered? 

2, Where can these plans be viewed? 

3.How can citizens influence this decision? 

4.Will the Council commit not to build a new dual carriageway?

No answers were forthcoming as Cllr Iqbal was not well. I  hope he is now feeling better. But surely he is not the only one in the cabinet aware of the proposals to spend £1.5 billion on our city centre? I was promised a full written answer, but I am still waiting and have experience of being fobbed off like this before. I suspect, now that the Eastern leg of HS2 has been “paused” the plans for the Sheaf Valley are no longer being considered. But it would be good to hear that from the Council, as well as what alternatives might now be considered.

This might seem bad, but what followed in the Council meeting was extraordinary. The ruling Labour group decided to ban any debates in the Council chamber until next March. They appear to be using the pandemic as an excuse to completely avoid scrutiny of their decisions. With no more debate until the budget in March, the Council are proceeding in a completely dictatorial fashion. This follows the earlier decision to use emergency powers to shut down all scrutiny of executive decisions, so opposition councillors have not been able to question decisions like the massive bailouts to Sheffield International Venues.

Women of Steel statue with placard saying "Sheffield, where democracy goes to die!"

Reaction to this included Green Cllr Paul Turpin tweeting “@SheffLabour deny scrutiny and block all alternate views till after the election next May. No motions. No debate. Nothing that could highlight their failings. This council is a dictatorship. This leader is a dictator.” 

Lib Dem Cllr Joe Otten retweeted It’s Our City. “Today Sheffield Council’s ruling group (voted in by <10% of the electorate) pushed through a vote preventing the city’s councillors from proposing, debating or voting on any decisions until March 2021! Many councils have maintained democracy during the pandemic. Why not Sheffield?

So what is it the Council are so scared to debate that they are willing to impose such draconian measures? 

Is it the cover-up regarding the Hanover Tower cladding? 

Is it the findings of the Ombudsman’s Report on the trees?

Is it the Councils complete inability to address the issues surrounding the Climate Emergency? Since they declared an Emergency in February 2019 they have done very little to reduce emissions. On their website they have written “for Sheffield to make its fair contribution to global climate goals, the city must not exceed a ‘budget’ of 16 million tonnes of carbon emissions over the next 2 decades. At current rates of energy consumption, Sheffield would use this entire budget in less than 6 years.” We have already used one-quarter of the time to sort out this problem, yet progress is not being made. 

Next May, Covid regulations permitting, the Council face elections that will include those seats not contested last May. Also the long-awaited “It’s our City” referendum will take place, challenging the Council’s current “strong leader” model where just 10 Councillors out of 84 have any power to make decisions. Sheffielders must defend democracy in these elections.

Graham Wroe October 2020

This article previously stated two thirds of the Sheffield Council seats will be contested in May 2021. See correction here.

References

Green World

https://greenworld.org.uk/article/sheffield-councillors-undemocratic-use-covid-19-powers

Yorkshire Post on Ombudsman’s Report

https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/politics/sheffield-council-misled-public-and-acted-lack-honesty-over-tree-felling-scandal-damning-investigation-finds-3002854

Hanover Tower cladding

Labour are afraid of scrutiny

Yorkshire Post article on the tree apology

https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/politics/sheffield-council-misled-public-and-acted-lack-honesty-over-tree-felling-scandal-damning-investigation-finds-3002854

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