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.

Monday, 1 June 2020

Something Wicked this way comes

I do not apologise for framing this article in terms of some unseen but anticipated evil. It is my concern that the actions of our Government, throughout this pandemic and particularly of late, are setting the scene for an unprecedented disaster for this country. The line from Macbeth seems appropriate in the circumstances. The full line is; “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes”
Macbeth-Act 4-scene 1

To frame this in a somewhat different light we can consider that;

“The first duty of the government is to keep citizens safe and the country secure.” (Home Office)

It is not difficult to argue that, from the start of this Covid19 outbreak, our Government has failed in this duty. Mainly because it wanted, through political ideology, to put our economy before the lives of our people but also because it failed to take the evidence of the scientific community as seriously as it should have. We did not lock down for an unconscionably long time and indeed have only introduced restrictions on visitors to this country today the 1st of June.

This inevitably lead to the chaos that was typified by testing services being withdrawn and elderly patients (untested) being discharged from Hospitals into community Care Homes, with the devastating results that followed. Despite the trends and the warnings from Italy, as the Virus rampaged through Europe, we were urged to “Take it on the chin” and only the prospects of hundreds of thousands of death as a result, diverted this Government from taking a “Herd Immunity” approach.

The lockdown arrived too late and the impact was therefore mitigated. We locked down when the deaths per day hit 200 and they were soon over 1,000, even now they hover somewhere between 200 & 400 per day, whilst new cases (official figures so probably about half of the real figures) are still stubbornly in the 2,000 per day region. The new cases peaked in excess of 8,000 and remained above 4,000 for the whole month of April. Data from Public Health England reported here , downturn blips after weekends are not unusual so worth waiting for the ongoing trend.

Throughout the approach of Government seems to have been one of lying or avoiding the scrutiny that this crisis demands. Essentially deceiving, dissembling & disinformation. So why am I talking about the potential for a new disaster and the '...something wicked...' comment? This is because two weeks ago the Government decided that the worst was over, we could amend the official guidance from 'Stay Home' to 'Stay Alert', though ask anybody what that means and you'll get different answers every time. We were also told it would be safe for children to go back to school and they created a way of spotting how we could ease lockdown restrictions over time.

Looking at this representation of that system, make your own mind up as to whether we should be looking at easing anything at this time.

Over the last few days this Government has systematically accelerated the easing of lockdown, we might want to ask why? The answer is simple, to protect and defend an unelected Special Adviser (Svengali?) to the Prime Minister, after he breached the lockdown rules to visit his mother on her birthday and take his wife to a Castle for her birthday. I am sad beyond measure that 350+ MP's (Conservatives) are allowing our country and it's people to be sacrificed on the alter of one man's ego.

I tweeted on 25th May that if Cummings survived the Rose Garden press conference then we had suffered a coup and he, not Bojo was effectively Prime Minister. This seems to have come to pass and from some sources the reason for this is to 'Get Brexit Done' in the midst of one of the most serious existential threats this country has ever faced. We are undone as a viable democracy and a laughing stock around the world.

The latest announcements have been met with concern by medical experts throughout the nation, yet we will be telling the most vulnerable in our society that they no longer need to 'Shield' to protect themselves from the virus. Though how they may feel about this when we have seen the damage that Cummings', actions have done to our public willingness to social distance is a different matter.

This weekend has been a disaster for social distancing and for the idea of any 'Common Sense' in the British public. Beauty spots locally and seaside destinations have been blighted by crowds and bad behaviour, causing injury and damage.

Moor and forest on fire, beaches overcrowded. It is only a matter of time before we see what Public Health issues they may also have caused. Sheffield's own Director of Public Health is not confident and all of this is being advocated whilst we still have no effective or even really functioning Test & Trace protocols in evidence.

There has been so much wrong with the way our Government has approached this Pandemic, I'm sure there will be volumes written eventually, that it is difficult to summarise but here's an attempt.

HMG priorities were;
Economy over people –
Defend Dominic Cummings & Bojo –
Get Brexit Done

To achieve these goals they have been willing to sacrifice the first duty of Government and throw away the lives of the public, under the Brexit Bus. They are willing to gag the press, throw out the evidence of science (whilst claiming to follow it) and to dismantle the democracy of the country.,/p>

We are of no consequence to these politicians and they simply do not care whether we live or die. They will feed us to the wolves and lie to our faces as they do so.

The Government has broken any trust the public had for their advice by defending the indefensible Cummings and by blatantly lying at every conceivable opportunity about their record dealing with Covid19.

So yes “...something wicked this way comes...”, welcome to the second wave.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Sheffield City Council – Cabinet Meeting - 20th May 2020

For the first time in it's 100+ years history the Leaders of the Council met remotely via internet services to enable at least some semblance of democracy to continue during these unprecedented times. This is my very concise report on the proceedings.

The Council's normal service is highly affected currently, both by the Pandemic and by Government changes to the way they are enabled to maintain services and make decisions during the crisis. This is impacting to some extent on the democratic process and is not what we would like to see happening but strange times can lead to unhappy circumstances and we must do what we can as organisations and individuals to maintain scrutiny of those in power and the decisions they make.

If the least we can do is to continue speaking truth to power then that is what we must do.

The meeting started a little after 2pm and, as is usual for what would normally be the first meeting after the Council's AGM it is essentially a short agenda. On this occasion, with the normal AGM having been cancelled all the faces of the Cabinet Councillors remained the same and in the same roles (this is unusual). The meeting was opened by Cllr Julie Dore, as leader, with some brief opening comments and effusive thanks to the people of the city for their forbearance through the 9 weeks of lock-down to date. She commented on the difficulties we have all faced adjusting to the restrictions and offered particular thanks to Council staff and Social Care staff for their dedication.

The agenda was still able to handle Public Questions, though it is now necessary to have the question in 2 days in advance if you want to be part of the meeting, On this occasion there were two questions;

Ibrar Hussein, for the Taxi Trades – asked about the plans for the Clean Air Zone in the current circumstances, the slow progress of putting licensing applications online and the slow response to petitions. This was answered by Cllr Bob Johnson and would be followed up with Mr Hussein direct.

Mike Hodson – Carter Knowle & Millhouses Community Group, asked about the engagement plans for the Director of Public Health and communities/groups in light of Public Health England guidelines and the fact of different 'r' rates (infections) within the country and region. This was answered by Julie Dore who is asking the DPH to respond to Mr Hodson.

The meat of the meeting was, not surprisingly, a report on the Covid 19 pandemic and the city's response and plans for the future.

This section of the meeting was introduced by the (Interim) Chief Exec, Charlie Adan and then heard from the Executive Managers responsible for the city's response. Key amongst these was Greg Fell as Director of Public Health. I won't give a blow by blow on his report, or the other Executive Managers there but highlight some of the key points that piqued my interest.

The DPH reported that, using reports to NHS111 of people using their infection algorithm, as well as normal figures of hospitalised cases, he was able to estimate that a truer figure of cases in Sheffield was 30,500. This is a useful extra level of information that continues to show how official figures are misleading. He also commented that, following Sheffield Hospitals testing programmes and a generally good response from the Sheffield public to the lock-down, Sheffield's ICU beds always maintained the capacity to deal with the cases that needed hospitalisation. Sadly 304 people to this date had died from the virus or complications associated with having the virus.

I did have some cause for concern over one or two of the comments;
How can we be certain that, as the DPH commented, those infected have developed any immunity or how long this may last? (inevitably I will be asking for evidence on this considering we test so little in this country)

I am also concerned that we continue to support following HMG guidelines when so much of what they have done to date has either been the wrong decisions or utterly confusing messages.(You can see further comment from me on these issues and more in this The Public Interest article )

An interesting point came up during the report on the logistical efforts the city has been making to tackle the pandemic, by John Mackilwraith (apologies if that's not correct, poor screen resolution makes the name difficult to make out) He reported that Sheffield quickly became the hub facilitating PPE deliveries for the whole of South Yorkshire, Public Services and Independent Sector. The city had supplied 85% of the Regions needs with the rest being drops from the HMG stock. As a result of some very hard work the Sheffield service had managed to maintain some 5 days supply at facilities across the South Yorkshire area and is also holding approximately 4 weeks stock for contingency.

A well organised public sector response in sharp contrast to the Central Government debacle on behalf of the NHS.

Lastly I want to highlight some of the financial impact that the Council have had to absorb to tackle this crisis. Eugene Walker, Executive Director for Finance, reported that the response to Covid 19 is currently estimated to cost the Council £77M and that £50M of that will be this year. Government is expected to provide grant support of £34M, leaving the city £16M short. This means that without further Government support and with the impact of current spending cuts to take into account the city will have to draw on it's reserves to fill this gap. Even then the city's reserves will be exhausted in 2022.

After the reports from Officers it was time for the Cabinet Councillors to make comments on the report. I comment briefly on these and first of all note that each of the Cabinet Councillors mentioned staff and workers and colleagues to thank everybody for their efforts during the crisis.

Abtisam Mohamed- Cabinet Member for Education and Skills Praised the efforts on ensuring that children on free school meals were provided with 4,000 food hampers over the Easter break and highlighting the lack of Government funding to allow for similar provision during Half Term and the Summer holidays. Also thanked the medium & small Voluntary Sector organisations for their exceptional efforts.

George Lindars-Hammond- Cabinet Member for Health and Social Care Highlighted the excellent response on PPE within S. Yorkshire, being facilitated by SCC and succeeding where HMG failed.

Jackie Drayton- Cabinet Member for Children & Families Emphasised the great work done in Social Care with shielded people in sheltered accommodation and those adults with learning difficulties, who required a different approach

Paul Wood- Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods and Community Safety Highlighted the staff's fantastic job at responding to emergency situations in the midst of the crisis and often within a matter of hours.

Mazher Iqbal- Cabinet Member for Business and Investment Commented on those in the public & voluntary sector who were often working very long days and 7 days a week to address the crisis. Also commented on the difficulty of making the mixed and confusing messages from HMG into something that SCC could deliver. Rhetoric – v – reality.

Bob Johnson- Cabinet Member for Transport and Development Praised the willingness of staff to take on redeployed roles during the crisis. He is also keen to progress some of the active travel proposals he has been working on with City Region and pleaded with Officers to make an announcement by the weekend.

Mark Jones- Cabinet Member for Environment, Streetscene and Climate Change Accepts there have been some problems of people not doing what they should, down to confusing and misunderstanding of Government messaging. Pleased Sheffield maintained open recycling centres and also important to continue efforts on climate change and flood defences to avoid additional crisis issues this winter.

Mary Lea- Cabinet Member for Culture, Parks and Leisure Expressed her upset at having to introduce such harsh measures with respect to bereavements and understands that even the announced relaxation is still difficult for people in grief. On a lighter note she was pleased that the investment in e-books had kept access to some library services available and that the city's parks had maintained an open status even if facilities were closed. They were clearly a lifeline for many.

Terry Fox- Deputy Leader & Cabinet Member for Finance, Resources and Governance Praised the speedy response of 'Mutual Aid' groups in the city and the work they were undertaking to keep communities functioning. Also commented on the flexibility of Council staff and their Unions in responding to the pandemic.

It will make an interesting backdrop to the 'Big City Conversation' around Neighbourhood Decision Making when that programme resumes.

Finally Julie Dore summed up by commenting that, at the time when she and the people of the city most needed to trust Government, we were unable to do so and how difficult this made every step. She also praised the work all Councillors of all parties for their efforts and contributions in the crisis.


Inevitably the tone of the report and the Cabinet comments were of a positive nature, stressing the exceptional efforts of the workers and people of the city. There was no comment on the fights in Page Hall or the issues of Gang crime & shootings in Nether Edge.

I understand this, in a context of maintaining morale and compliance within the population, and hope that these issues are being dealt with by Cabinet members within their portfolios. It would be a serious mistake for us to take a fully 'Keep Calm & Carry On' approach when so much of what this Government has done so far has been detrimental to the Health & Wellbeing of the people of the country.

I will be engaging, I'm sure much to their delight, with members directly on some of the issues but recognise also that things may take a little longer than normal to get responses. I'm used to this however, still waiting on answers to questions for some three years.

We are by no means out of this crisis yet, we need to be prepared for further waves of infection, possibly worse than the first, and the way we work, shop, play and learn may well have changed forever. I hope and trust that key business leaders, including the relevant Cabinet members, are taking the need to review current plans for the City to heart and will include a broad range of stakeholders, including the public, in this ongoing effort

I encourage you to watch the archive of the meeting and to access the report papers both available here .

On a Lighter Note

The first remote Webcast of the Cabinet Meeting was also notable for the, shall we say, mixed impact of the visuals. There were a number of members who seemed to take the floating head approach to their appearance, others including officers, had some distortion to their features from proximity to their cameras and there were an interesting array of fake backgrounds on offer. All mildly amusing and not too distracting but if I had some advice it would be this;

Perhaps a harmonised background for the Officers – Be aware of your framing – Be aware of what you are doing with your hands etc. (at one point Bob Johnson looked as if he was giving a puppet show but lost his puppets).

However, all in all, a good start and at least retaining some level of scrutiny and public engagement. We shall see if other committees can match that.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Covid-19 – It's about what we don't know!

I am trying to get a grip on my response to Covid19 and the lock down. Some of you may be aware that I commented relatively early on about the response from Government on Facebook with a view that it was too little too late . I am still of that opinion and everything HMG has done since that time has only reinforced my understanding of their incompetence and an almost religious adherence to saving the economy above the people.

The latest change of 'emphasis' with the new slogan and amended advice is seemingly designed to do one thing, make us each responsible for the failure or success of the 'Fight against the Virus'. Government are abrogating the responsibility for our public health to us as individuals and no doubt will soon lay the responsibility for care homes and schools at the door of Local Government, more blame to go around. Government must not be allowed to get away with making the public responsible for their mistakes and failed ideologies. They continue to dissemble about their role in this chaos and, as individuals within Government simply lie about what has been said and done.

For myself the old adage from Socrates' Apology seems apt;

“... that what (which) I do not know I do not think I know ...” [from the Henry Cary literal translation of 1897]

The one overriding aspect of this virus is that we still have so much to learn. Anybody who states they have the measure or the solution to this pandemic is a fool or a liar. This returns us once more to the performance of our Government. Throughout, the Government have adopted the usual Johnson/Cummings approach of 'Lie – Lie – Run away'. Their narrative on the comings and goings of “The Science” have been contradictory and misleading. The very agency intended to provide independent advice (SAGE) was effectively suborned by political influence and considerations and the Government experts rolled out for the cameras were soon undermined and exposed as parroting the establishment story, attempting to present the Government approach to the Pandemic as reasonable and measured. This is no better typified than by the debacle of whether the Government was following the 'Herd Immunity' strategy or not.

It was very clear from the beginning that the Governments key aim was protection of the economy (and their corporate supporters) rather than the safety of the populace.

We, as a country had the opportunity to be ahead of the game when we saw the devastation being caused across Europe as the virus took hold. Our Government and the other authorities failed us.

Difficulties of dealing with a 'novel' virus – how our knowledge continues to evolve

We have from the start failed to give enough attention to that one little word that prefixed the first comments about the virus – 'novel'. As a novel Coronavirus it should have been quickly identified and widely discussed as a very different form of a well known type of contagion. We are all familiar with the common cold and the flu, also coronaviruses, but placing this new virus in these familiar terms was a damning and dangerous rhetoric to reassure a worried populace. It made the thing seem less scary and more manageable.

Whilst it was still far away in 'foreign parts' we could comfort ourselves that it only really had consequences for the old and those with underlying medical problems. Those risk groups would die through complications familiar to pneumonia, drowning in their own lungs and by the fatal overstressing of their previous conditions. So the older population was deemed disposable, ill older patients (probably some infected with Covid19) were dispatched to nursing and social care homes to spread the virus in their own age group and restrict the impact on the economy and the NHS.

Then we found that younger people were suffering both from the same symptoms and also dying from unexpected blood clotting issues causing Heart Attacks & Strokes. Surely they already had health issues. Well I guess if you call being 'frontline staff' in the health service or hailing from the Black and Minority Ethnic population a 'health issue' you could be onto something but this just showed a vector for the spread of the virus and the deaths were across the board.

At least the children were safe, the virus seemed to skip affecting them, or did it? A new and disturbing series of deaths in children suffering some form of multiple organ failure (similar to Kawasaki's Disease) has spoiled that theory. Further recent stats from the Office of National Statistics indicates that the rate of infections is similar across all age groups and, at the very least, this means children are infection vectors for Covid19. The more we uncover about the way this virus spreads and the impact throughout the population the clearer it is that we cannot rely on the old way of doing things and we must be very aware of the impacts of Government policy aimed at protecting the economy before the population.

The Pandemic – what is our exposure?

So what is our exposure? This is another thing we do not know. It is possible that in the early days when this Government did some testing we might have had some idea about our levels of contagion. Since widespread testing was stopped (probably because the figures were too scary) we have no definitive proof of our exposure to the pandemic. Oddly in Sheffield we have a better idea as our local Health agencies tested more than any other area of the country, which lead to the city being seen as a bit of a hot spot until it was explained that, the more you test the more you discover infected people. Yet even now we still have poor community testing programme and the infrastructure to 'Test – Track & Trace' is way behind where it should be.

As a result the Government figures for infections are widely disbelieved and even the figures for deaths (we only started counting deaths in care homes a matter of days ago) is believed to be seriously under-reported. Only those tested count for official figures and my own household has one, potentially two, people who were infected but did not require medical intervention (therefore not counted).

Official Figures; ONS Figures; Unofficial Figures;

Effectively this is another area where our knowledge is incomplete or flawed and yet decisions of national impact and of Life & Death are being made using the most optimistic of these figures. (The black line)

Test & Trace?

Another part of the puzzle that our Government chose to avoid and is only now very late in adopting is the idea of Test & Trace. It has been clear from the off that those countries which responded early to the need for testing and chose to trace contacts of infected persons have had a lower impact from the pandemic. The World Health Organisation has supported this approach from the early stages and it is the only thing that will allow us to really understand our susceptibility to a long and deadly series of additional waves of Covid19.

We are, in this country, in a 'debate' about opening up our schools again. A comment from Government did say that testing and tracing would be available to any child or teacher that started to show symptoms after the return to classrooms. I'm going to let that sit for a moment. … Symptoms show only several days after infection and during which pause the person is contagious to all around them. Government (Boris & Gove) talk about the great British Common Sense, I see none of that in this approach. I see a Government sacrificing teachers and children to their God of the economy. Teachers should not be expected to put their lives on the line for the sake of getting their pupils' parents back to work. The evidence of the impact from one Bristol school should be enough to kill this idea stone dead.

Even the Governments plans for tracing are falling apart, as first they tried to get one of Dominic Cummings pals to create the system and then it became clear that the public do not trust our Government to keep our data safe and therefore will not adopt the 'Phone App' system.

Comparisons – useful or not?

The UK has recently recorded the highest death toll in Europe (not the EU but the continent) and, as a result our Government has now stopped showing the UK figures in comparison to our European neighbours. Is this a cynical attempt not to look bad in the press and to the populace or are comparisons not really that useful? I would simply ask what use are a set of isolated figures if you have nothing to measure your efforts against?

By comparing what we do to combat this pandemic and the results of those efforts against other countries allows for two things. One we get to see how what we do, whether similar or different, changes the impact on the pandemic. Two, we can learn from those that have better or worse results than we do and therefore save more lives.

This and many other useful graphs & comparisons can be found here at a Blog by Chris Rust

Conspiracy Opinion – a danger to us all?

A healthy scepticism of the motives of Governments is a good thing in a democracy. Falling for every hare brained conspiracy leading down a rabbit hole of social media opinion is a different matter. (Yes I am aware I mixed a hare metaphor with a rabbit metaphor) So far the Covid19 pandemic has been blamed on 5G phone tech, the Chinese, The Americans and probably if I looked hard enough we would find the Illuminati and Aliens in the mix. The evidence for all these 'beliefs' is sketchy at best and outrageously comical at worst. The key word there is belief, since by admitting to a belief most people will never be disabused of the righteousness of that belief. It triggers a response of cognitive dissonance, known as belief disconfirmation ;

“The contradiction of a belief … causes cognitive dissonance that can be resolved by changing the challenged belief, yet, instead of effecting change, the resultant mental stress restores psychological consonance to the person by misperception, rejection, or refutation of the contradiction, seeking moral support from people who share the contradicted beliefs or acting to persuade other people that the contradiction is unreal.” (Eddie Harmon-Jones, 2002) or to put it on shorter and pithier words; “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt.” (Bertrand Russel)

Yes, there are conspiracies in this world but I would be surprised if any of the actual conspiracies are openly touted on Social Media. Spreading and giving oxygen to theories that lack credible evidence or even basic substance is dangerous in times of global tension and a deadly pandemic so, be careful what you believe and be even more careful what you promote. You have complete license to believe any dangerous conspiracy you want but you have no right to inflict harm on others as a result of that belief. 2000+ years of religious wars anyone??

The second wave? & When will it be over?

The idea of the second wave (and possibly more) of Covid19 is one that was established early, one of the few things we can be confident about, following the evidence of the 1917/18 Influenza pandemic. The release of lock down conditions will result in a second wave of infections and deaths. In the Influenza pandemic this was in many cases worse than the first wave and the result of relaxing restrictions too early. Yet we seem to have learned little judging by the Governments approach. Even before the incidence of deaths has dropped to the level where the lock down was imposed are they talking of starting to ease restrictions. With parts of the country still experiencing infection rates above Government targets the economy is being championed and people who can sit safe in their mansions are urging people back to work and into harms way for the sake of the corporate economy.

As for all this chaos being over? That may never happen. If a vaccine is discovered then there is the opportunity to radically reduce the impact of the pandemic but we have not yet found a successful vaccine for a coronavirus. It may be that we have to accept a new 'mutation' of the virus on a regular basis and the search therefore for a new vaccine. Influenza requires a shot every year, partly to aim at the most likely strain for that season, and partly to address the fact that one shot confers only a limited window of immunity. How might this change our society in the long term?

Last word

As a last contribution I reiterate my words from the beginning of this piece; “Anybody who states they have the measure or the solution to this pandemic is a fool or a liar.” We are still learning what this virus is and what it can do. We should not underestimate it's 'novel' nature and that science and society is struggling to catch up. One thing I would like to think is that we will arrive at a society that replaces the religion of economy and money with a society based on recognising that we have enough for all in this world, if only we are willing to share. I have no confidence in that outcome but I will keep working for that in my own city and region so long as I can usefully do so. So remember and beware;

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” -Asimov

“It is dangerous to be right in matters where established men are wrong. “ — Voltaire, in other words, "It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong."

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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