About This Blog

The public should know all we can about the business of the decision makers that affect our lives, our wallets and our democracy. This is a record of my efforts to try and improve the levels of transparency and accountability within Sheffield City Council and others. To shine a light on how decisions are made and where the money goes. If I can also help others to find their own voice and influence along the way, then that is a bonus.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

SCRMCA Meeting 30th July 2018

For those unaware of the change of status, Sheffield City Region Combined Authority has now added an M to it's acronym for the Mayor, and will now be known as Sheffield City Region Mayoral Combined Authority. A hell of a mouthful therefore locally is often known simply as the Sheffield City Region or SCR.

Regular readers will know that I attend these meetings as often as I can. Initially this was to understand the devolution deal we have had foisted upon us and trying to improve transparency and accountability in this decision making body that spends many Millions on our behalf.

At the meeting on Monday 30th July, I asked three questions of the Mayor. Since his election in May, he is now Chair of the Combined Authority and runs the meetings. In an interesting departure, Mayor Jarvis approached me before the meeting started to let me know that he would be inviting me to ask the questions myself. Previously this was not the case and Chairs simply responded to the questions.

This approach always bothered me as it does not allow for the nuance of a spoken question, frustration, anger, encouragement etc. to impact on the response from the Mayor or Chair. This has led to misunderstandings in the past and I view this as a positive start to a more responsive approach to public engagement. Indeed pubic engagement was the subject of my first two questions and the responses were equally encouraging of a more proactive mood in the CA.

Question 1 asked;

As an often solo member of the public at the current meetings of the CA in this location, (Advanced Manufacturing Park at Waverley/Catcliffe) would it be too early to suppose that the approval of capital works at the CA's Broad Street West offices is a prelude to the CA meetings being consolidated in that location?

The Mayor's response was that transparency & accountability were integral to his approach for the CA and the Mayor's Office and that, after the changes being made at Broad St West, the meetings of the CA will indeed be moved to that building.

Question 2 asked;

Noting that the inclusion in these plans for webcasting facilities at Broad Street West is, hopefully, a major positive for public engagement with the authority, what other steps is the Mayor considering for improving public understanding and engagement with the ongoing, if stalled, devolution process?

The wording was quite careful in this response, indicating that the plan was to webcast meetings from Broad St West but that this would not be the only change to public engagement as he was keen this should be a hallmark of the CA and the Mayor's role. In his response to the question he also emphasised that his office would use all the means available to improve public engagement, including social media. (In an afterword at the end of the meeting he also commented that this did not mean meetings cannot be held in other parts of the Region and that having webcasting facilities in place in other locations would facilitate this and further improve public engagement)

This is all very encouraging to hear and I will continue to move for more responsive public involvement within the meetings. The need to submit questions 7 days in advance can be detrimental to accountability, particularly if matters arise during that run up to the meeting that deserve an urgent response. This may well be an issue for future questions.

Finally in Question 3 I asked;

With the Government continuing to vacillate over whether or not to engage with a 'Yorkshire Devolution' process, how will this impact on the Mayor's discussions about the completion of the Sheffield City region 'deal'?

The response to this was much more 'politic' in content, simply suggesting that he is continuing to make representation to all Leaders in the Region and further afield to fulfil the devolution agenda and press for a wider 'Yorkshire' solution. (I don't blame the Mayor for being careful with this response, he has two apparently uncompromising Councils to deal with already, he will not be wanting to create any more 'issues')

So, all in all, a useful public question session. The meeting itself, for me, still seems a very theatrical affair, where decisions already discussed are rubber stamped, rather than seeing anything of the cut and thrust of the debate around them. All the reports were approved without issue and barely any comments or questions from the other elected leaders around the table.

I look forward to the Mayor's commitment to a more open approach having a positive impact as time goes on.

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Friday, 20 July 2018

Cabinet Meeting 18th July 2018 - Public Q&A's

Sheffield City Council's Cabinet Meeting of the 18th July was somewhat more informative than many recent meetings and, as a result, I felt the responses to my questions are worth noting.

So here are the questions I asked and a condensed version of the answers I received.

Questions to Cabinet 18th July 2018

Q1 I've heard from a number of sources within Council that a procurement process has begun for the Webcasting of Council meetings and that a tender invitation will be sent out shortly. Is this the case?
If so, what are the details of the specification in the tender for a webcasting service?
Which meetings? Guarantees of independence from political interference? Indexing of agenda items and identification of participants? Archiving arrangements? Etc.

A1 Response from Cllr Olivia Blake (Cabinet Member for Finance) Commented that recent tests for recording meetings had shown the audio system was at the end of it's useful life. It has previously been agreed that any such service should be affordable within current budgets. Tenders were sent out asking for options to do this. Tenders have been received and are going through assessment process.

My Comment
This is generally good news, probably. I have been pressing for webcasting of Council meetings for six years or more and, despite a commitment from the Leader of Council, Julie Dore over two years ago it has been painfully slow progress. It is a shame the outline specs for the tender documents were not discussed more transparently, perhaps with those of us pressing for the service, hopefully the options that arise will be shared before decisions are made.

Q2 The changes to the public realm on Charter Row, at the back of the Debenhams store and the side of the new HSBC building, offered an opportunity to much improve that relatively sterile part of the city centre. Unfortunately, for some strange reason, the seating on the Debenhams side of the street faces the back wall of Debenhams rather than across the open space towards the new green spaces being created at the side of the HSBC building.
Why is this? Was this always the plan or a mistake?
Passing recently it is clear that most of the new planting in that area is dying due to lack of watering. Who is responsible for this space and the maintenance of the planting?

A2 Response from Cllr Mazher Iqbal (Cabinet Member for Business and Investment) He agreed the design might appear a bit odd at this stage but that further development in that area would make the layout make more sense. (I am promised an overview of the future look of the area at my next meeting with Cllr Iqbal). On concerns over the planting, the contractors have responded and will now be watering the planting once a week during this arid spell of weather.

Q3 In the last year or so I have heard the phrase Due Diligence on several occasions. It has been used in regard to many decisions made by Council, from the potential selling of the Central Library, the disposal of Mount Pleasant (where it was used a great deal) to the recently collapsed 'ofo' deal.
What has never been made clear is what Due Diligence actually means.
Can Council explain what the phrase means?
What steps are included in assessing due diligence?
What information is accessed and assessed?
Where is the information sourced?
Who/which department assesses the information?
What technical or other qualifications are expected of people in this decision making position?

Response by Cllr Julie Dore (Leader of the Council) Commenting that I was probably well aware what the term meant, she however explained that it is a generic term and about ensuring checks and balances are maintained for contracts etc. Such checks will always include financial and legal checks but can also include broader issues about ability to deliver on the contract or service. Normally the checks were carried out by qualified Council staff but they will use outside experts as necessary. Cllr Dore then asked if I had any particular decisions in mind?

I responded no but generally I felt it would be useful (& improve transparency) if reports to Cabinet etc. included information about the types of checks carried out not just the words 'due diligence'

She agreed to take that on board (I may need to follow that up with the Council's Chief Exec, John Mothersole)

Q4 Over the last couple of years the proposed fate of the Central Library has changed more than once. Sale to an outside investor, new building in the Heart of the City and now a revamp of the current location. What is the current situation with respect to the Central library and building?

A4 Response from Cllr Mary Lea (Cabinet Member for Culture, Parks and Leisure) Commenting that the Council were committed to the Central library building and to the Graves Art Gallery, she said there were to be a series of public events in the near future to look at what a new central library service might look like and where it might be situated. This might include the current location or a new building still within the city centre.

Generally a series of positive responses with actual outcomes on the horizon. Webcasting to become a reality? Improved openness about plans for the redevelopment around Charter Square. potential for more information in decision documents about what 'Due Diligence' means & public consultation (before the fact) on the future of the Central library sevrice.

It's good to get confirmation that what I do as an Active Citizen works.

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Monday, 9 July 2018

Vanishing Democracy

A few weeks ago I wrote an article for publication in this month's Now Then Magazine, entitled “Vanishing Democracy” - Has Council Lost Touch with the People?

In what might be described as serendipity or, if you're of that mind, the Universe working in a mysterious way, I completed the article just a few days before It's Our City, the Sheffield Community Group launched their plans to create a petition about the City's democratic structure. The petition is aimed at calling on and possibly forcing Sheffield City Council to hold a referendum on changing to a Committee style structure away from the Strong Leader model we currently have.

If you read the article, via the linked title above, you will see that, between the Strong leader model of Governance and the impact of Austerity there has been a withdrawal by the Council into a more centralised decision making process. One that excludes the public (intentionally or not is immaterial) from having the voice and influence over decisions that we once enjoyed.

We all recognise how austerity and the gutting of Local Government finances has debilitated much of what Council's all over the country can do but, the way we respond to that reduced capacity is key to our ability to resist it's worst effects.

Greater participation from the city's people, investment in that participation and encouragement of that participation is absolutely vital. Councils need to loosen their obsessive control over so many aspects of what we are allowed to do, as community groups, as volunteers and as individuals wanting to support the needs of our city. They need to get behind local initiatives because they work, not because they fit a 'Party Political' agenda and grasp the nettle that is collaborative working within their decision making. An inability to see beyond the pound notes of a proposal or a deal or an opportunity is detrimental to good decision making. We need, in this City, at this time an appreciation of the 'Social Good' that can be done if we will only take the risk.

No one Political Party, Corporation, Voluntary Organisation or Individual has all the answers and nobody is right all the time. Looking at the way Council and Councillors respond to challenge and criticism, you would not believe that. Defensiveness and a bunker down attitude prevails and that is detrimental to making decisions that really benefit locally, and not just in the public purse, but in people's lives and their wellbeing.

I suspect there are few in Council who will read this and agree with me but I am very aware that there are Councillors of the current administration and many members of their political party who are uncomfortable with the way this city is managing itself. We must encourage those people to be more open in challenging the status quo and to put the people of the city before their 'Party' loyalty and the detrimental consequences that begets.

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Friday, 29 June 2018

It's Our City & We Can Change It

28th June 2018. This may be a date you want to remember. It's the date that Sheffield community group 'It's Our City' decided that enough is enough.

The group held a news conference on this day and launched a major challenge to the way Sheffield is governed. Anne Barr, one of the group's steering group started the event talking about how sad she felt when, attending a recent rally in the city, she saw a banner reading “Sheffield – Where Democracy Goes to Die”.

She went on to comment that, as a group they were trying to make a city where people can;
- Think, talk & work together.
- Become active & informed citizens.
- Ask for more from elected representatives.

Although originally growing out of the Streets Ahead PFI issue they are also looking at the way decisions are made locally & are impacting on broader community concerns. From the redevelopment and selling off of community assets (heritage buildings & community hubs) to missed opportunities and funding by simply failing to listen to the communities.

Then to the reason for the gathering. Ruth Hubbard, another of the group's steering committee, announced that they were planning to bring forward a petition demanding a change to the way the city is governed.

Sheffield is currently governed by a 'Strong Leader' model and that means that decisions about how the city works is made by just 10 people. The Leader of the Council and the Cabinet (currently 9 members). Elected Councillors beyond this inner group therefore have little or no power, irrespective of their Party colours. There is, however, power available to citizens of the city to remedy this situation. In the Localism legislation brought in under the Coalition Government there is a mechanism where a Council's electorate can force a referendum on changing the Council's structure.

In Sheffield this would mean forcing the Council to adopt a form of Committee governance, rather than the strong leader structure. It's actually a simple process too. The Group will create a petition under this localism legislation and, provided enough people on the city's electoral roll sign the petition, the Council has no choice but to hold a referendum on the change.

I won't go into what that will affect at this stage, that will come out over time as the petition is launched and campaigning begins. The first obstacle is to collect more than 5% of the electorates signatures. This number is not exact as yet but is expected to be around 21,000. This is the next step for the group and they hope to launch the petition in the next few weeks.

It sounds a big number but the petition to try and save the Georgian shops on Devonshire Green gained over 20,000 in a few days, so it is eminently achievable. There would still be a referendum to be won but in Councils where this has been undertaken that has also proved a winner.

My hope is that the Council will, as has happened with other Councils, choose to engage with this issue and simply agree to a real conversation about the issue and deliver a choice in a referendum at the next elections in May 2019.

Click here for It's Our City Website
Click here for It's Our City News Page

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Monday, 21 May 2018

SCR Mayor Election – A Unique Experience?

Friday the 4th May 2018 was the day the first Mayor of the Sheffield City Region, and possibly the only Mayor of the SCR was elected.

Polls closed Thursday at 10pm but the count did not start until 9am the next morning. The result was expected around noon but, as ever, things did not go quite to plan. I was given accreditation to attend the count as part of the Sheffield Live TV contingent, with a view to securing some interviews with candidates during the count or after the result.

One candidate was missing from the off, Ian Walker (Conservative) was apparently in Japan for a business engagement, perhaps a sign they did not expect to make much impact. The rest of the line up of candidates were all present each with various degrees of confidence being displayed, I ran into Dan Jarvis MP as we both arrived at about the same time and, consummate politician that he is, he demurred my suggestion he was a likely winner, expressing hope rather than certainty.

Connecting with Sheffield City Council Chief Executive, John Mothersole I asked for an update on the count and the likely declaration time. He seemed confident that this would be before 1pm. However, 1pm came and went and despite a calm atmosphere overall there was clearly something not quite going to plan.

It transpired when SCR staff updated the candidates and then the press that there was an issue in Barnsley over an imbalance between verified votes and the actual count. In other words when the ballot boxes were first opened and invalid papers removed the remaining valid ballot papers came to one number but, after the individual votes for candidates were counted and totalled, those numbers did not match. This is not allowed.

Consequently we had not one but two recounts before the two numbers from Barnsley matched and still it was not over. To a certain amount of surprise amongst many, although in the lead after the first preference votes were counted, Dan Jarvis MP received only 47% of the required 50% to win. There were looks of trepidation in the Labour camp. We were now into a period of counting second preference votes. This would add at least another hour or so to the expected declaration time.

Probably one of the more interesting aspects during all this hanging about was catching some of the gossip and spotting the local politicos who were or were not there. Mayor Ros Jones from Doncaster was there but declined to say anything in front of camera, as an observer only. Sir Steve Houghton, Leader of Barnsley Council was not there. Whether this is indicative of the relative interest from the two dissenting Councils is still to be seen. Meanwhile, there were also appearances from Julie Dore (Leader of Sheffield Council), Paul Blomfield MP & Alan Billings (South Yorkshire PCC)

Of the gossip, hearing someone call Steve Houghton as having seemingly gone rogue was surprising and may not bode well for an early resolution of the current impasse.

I decided at this time to try and grab some of the first round losing candidates for interviews. Hannah Kitching (Lib Dems) was first up as she was also standing in the local election in Barnsley, where she later won the Penistone Ward. The English Democrat, David Allen left immediately so no interview there but the rest of the candidates were happily forthcoming. and I also managed to line up interviews with a senior officer from the City Region and the Vice Chair of the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).

Of the interviews, Dan Jarvis MP, the winner was the last as following the declaration he suddenly became the property of the SCR and the press handlers stepped in to control his exposure. The full results can be seen here. The compilation video of the interviews is below, along with the new Mayor's speech.

Labour's Dan Jarvis elected as South Yorkshire region mayor from Sheffield Live on Vimeo.

The Mayor's first formal SCRCA (or will it now be SCRMA?) meeting is 11th June and this will mark 3 months with no apparent political or public oversight of the City Region's activities. It will be interesting to see whether the Mayor has a view on when will be his last formal meeting, 2020 or the legislated 2022?

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Monday, 12 March 2018

Sheffield City Region Combined Authority Meeting - 9th March 2018

Unusually the meeting started late, nearly 15 minutes late. Are we to assume the 'secret' part of the meeting had some controversy? Certainly the public meeting was down to be all business, despite a public question from me.

The formal public meeting started with the usual preamble around apologies, items for the exclusion of press etc. Interestingly and for me disappointing there was a complete lack of any potential or declared Mayoral candidates at the meeting. This is the Authority they will be leading after the election in May and they missed the opportunity to attend and see the theatre for themselves.

I can say that the candidate for the Yorkshire Party, Mick Bower of Rotherham, has attended several previous meetings but not a single candidate or potential candidate for the major parties has ever, as far as I know, attended a City Region Meeting. The next meeting of the SCRCA is planned for April 30th, during election Purdah, so this was their only opportunity to see the Region Leaders in action before the election.

The only people in the 'public gallery' a grand title for half a dozen chairs against one wall of the meeting room, were myself and two ladies from Moorends, in the Doncaster Borough. They were there to present a petition from the village about bus services. It was nice to see them there, in the right place to ask about Public Transport issues and that they got at least a partial response.

The Chair, Chris Read (Leader of Rotherham Borough) acknowledged the petition, thanked them and promised to refer it to the Transport Committee (part of the SCRCA structure). Ros Jones – Mayor of Doncaster, responded to say she supported the petition and the need for a service to Moorends. Julie Dore – Leader of Sheffield City Council also responded to support the petition being put to the Committee and to suggest, if they had one, to Doncaster's Bus Partnership.

My question was next up; What Skills Training or Apprenticeship contracts for SCR are currently delivered by Learndirect Ltd?

An Ofsted inspection in 2017 found the company “inadequate” and a Government DfE spokeswoman said: "The government is ending Learndirect's contract to provide apprenticeships and adult education, because of its failure to meet the high standards expected.

What will be the impact of this report and this statement on SCR learners?

BBC News Report 2nd March 2018

The response came from the Chair, Chris Read to the effect that; Officers confirmed this is a National Contract so no direct delivery of services for SCRCA by Learn Direct but there will be some impact on local Learners. That information was not immediately available but Officers would be tasked to provide the detail.

A reasonable answer, I'll await the complete response.

The meeting was settling into it's usual routine of brief reports from Officers on financial, committee and Executive Board operations. Few matters of interest though, those with a good memory, will note that the initial forecast of costs for the Mayoral Election has risen from £1M to nearly £2M but no comment on why and no query of this from any of the political leaders in attendance.

On the Capital Funding side of things it looks likely the CA will be underspent by nearly £10M and officers are now negotiating(?) to retain this money for next year rather than return it to Government. In this same report we may have found this month's source of irritation between the Council Leaders

"2.19 Local transport capital pot This element is a proposed new component of the South Yorkshire transport capital programme and accounts for 8% of the overall programme. It is proposed to split the pot (£3.5m) across Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham according to their population estimates. Further details about this element of the programme can be found in a separate report which will be presented to CA Leaders on 9th March 2018."

Julie Dore started by asking where this £3.5M came from and what was the rationale that allocated the money to only 3 of the relevant districts on a per capita proportionate basis? Also were there any other examples of where this had been done before?

Response from Officers indicated this was part of the overall borrowing in the Capital Programme for the Passenger Transport Authority. The programme of spending for Sheffield City had been agreed and this further amount was therefore allocated just to Barnsley Doncaster & Rotherham. Julie Dore reiterated her need for a rationale behind that decision if the overall South Yorkshire PTE pot was where this money came from. It is to be noted the previous reports do not refer to this 'pot' being restricted to only 3 of the 4 Councils.

It was at this point that moods deteriorated and pointed comments were made over the cost of Supertram (benefitting only Sheffield) as a negative impact on SCR budgets and that Barnsley taxpayers deserved this pot. Barnsley and Doncaster were essentially saying Sheffield got enough and they wanted something just for the smaller distrticts. Rotherham tried to keep the peace but when it came to a recorded vote, the three districts outvoted Sheffield. Was £3.5M worth the further bad feeling this will generate between Council Leaders?

The rest of the reports passed by without comment or questions from leaders again and the meeting was wound up soon after.

Next Meeting - 30th April 2018, 2pm, AMP – This falls during election Purdah and may be subject to change.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Sheffield City Council Cabinet Meeting 14th February 2018

My questions to Cabinet this month were a bit unusual in a number of ways. Some are relatively straightforward but are a part of a longer term considered inquiry and one was delivered on the day instead of in advance as is my usual practice.

In a similarly unusual move some of the questions were either answered or written answers were offered before the meeting. In view of what came later, this was useful.

So: Question 1, on numbers of staff and budgets for Communications as against Democratic Services, I will be receiving a written answer.

Question 2, on capacity and number of students enrolled in the City's two University Technical Colleges, I will be receiving a written answer.

Question 3, on progress on my Conduct Complaint against a Councillor, I was updated verbally before the meeting and have since received a written answer. Apparently we are awaiting the arranging of a 'Consideration Sub-Committee' and have been since before Christmas. I wonder what will happen if this is not arranged before the AGM when everyone plays musical chairs in the committees?

Question 4, on the recent report by the Communities & Local Government Select Committee Inquiry into Overview & Scrutiny Functions in Local Government, was answered by Cllr Julie Dore (Leader). She commented that she would expect the Council's own Overview and Management Scrutiny Committee to consider the report as part of it's work programme. It would also look at all the recommendations of the report even though I had highlighted only certain parts.

That is fine by me, I had at this stage highlighted areas I know SCC don't do currently in the hope of stimulating a debate on the effectiveness of scrutiny in the city. To that extent I am content … for now.

My final question of the meeting was submitted at short notice and therefore I expected little by way of an answer but it was to serve notice that a disagreement may be at hand. In my Question 5 I asked about a decision announced (in private to the Sheffield Star only) that day about Mount Pleasant House being sold to a company to make into a Care Home.

There had been, in the previous week, reasons to believe that the decision may have been based on 'mistaken' or missing information in the reports received by Cabinet Members. I therefore asked that the decision be referred to Scrutiny to ensure “...that a complete understanding of the decision can be achieved and that it is based on a full understanding of the impact of this decision on another gem of Sheffield's heritage before it is lost to the local community forever.”

I also asked for a number of bits of information about the stage of the negotiations with the successful bidder.

The initial response was from Julie Dore, who commented that there is a protocol for contract decisions and it is not possible to comment on confidential or commercially sensitive information. There was no comment about referring the decision to Scrutiny.

Cllr Olivia Blake (Cabinet Member for Finance) then confirmed the offer of a meeting for the following morning as she thought an early meeting with herself, Cllr Ben Curran (Cabinet Member for Planning and Development) and Cllr Mazher Iqbal (Cabinet Member for Business and Investment) would be useful to look at other locations to develop some of the proposals in the Mount Pleasant bid.

I suspect this story will run and run, whilst another unique gem of Sheffield's heritage is under threat.

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