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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.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

All or Nothing – Changing the Electoral Shape of Sheffield.

On Thursday 14th April, the above was the title for my first outing in this year's Festival of Debate. Following changes to the ward boundaries in Sheffield, we will have an ‘all out’ election in May where all councillors will be up for re-election. This is the ideal time to consider the impact of ‘all out’ and whether this is a change that should become permanent. These are my own thoughts on the evening.

The panel and audience for the debate heard a presentation from James Henderson, in charge of all things electoral as a Director in the City Council. He outlined for us the reasons behind the Boundary Commission becoming involved in our ward and electoral issues and the changes they made to our electoral geography. Essentially some of our ward demographics were out of balance. Too many people in some wards and too few in others, therefore the people are not equally represented by the elected Councillors.

The changes now give us a balanced ward structure but some of us, me included, will have to get used to a new ward name and a new set of Councillors. James also briefly outlined the difference between election by thirds, what we do now, with an election 3 years out of 4 and All Out elections, what we will do this year, 1 election every 4 years.

The rest of the panel were; Myself as Chair & Question Master. Cllr Terry Fox (Labour, Manor Castle) Cabinet Member for Environment & Transport. Vicky Seddon, Co-ordinator of Sheffield for Democracy & Edward Molloy, Nexus Officer for the Electoral Reform Society.

At the start, I have to admit to being disappointed by the audience turnout of about 20 but they were all engaged and interested in the subject so the debate did not suffer in that regard. The panellists were allowed an initial period to state their current position on the boundary changes and the option of all out elections. We then moved straight in to the audience questions.

I don't plan to try and repeat the debate word for word but to simply leave you with my impression of the evening as a whole.

Terry Fox was not, currently in favour of all out elections and the main reasons appeared to be that elections by thirds allowed the voters to pass comment on the performance of their councillors on an annual basis, holding them to account better. It also leads to more stable majority administrations as opposed to unstable hung or coalition councils.

Vicky Seddon was very much in favour of all out elections, the main reasons being effectiveness, with councillors able to work on the basis of a four year stable mandate to enact policy rather than constantly electioneering. Efficiency, with council being able to utilise the whole of the years in-between elections for business, rather than losing a month or more to election campaigning rather than council business. Cost savings, all out elections would save £150,000 a year, with extra savings coming from the efficiency already mentioned.

Edward Molloy, concentrated on the current crisis in democracy over voter engagement and reasoned that fewer local elections generate better turnouts and that people feel their vote counts more if an election has the potential of changing the administration, which rarely happens in elections by thirds.

So the three viewpoints seemed to come down to, the stability of the status quo, the improved effectiveness & efficiency of the Council and the fairness of the electoral process and making votes count.

The questions from the audience led us around these opinions and into areas about devolution, the complexity of the electoral system and why people are less engaged than ever? (voter turnout in local elections is generally less than 40% and getting worse) whether with central government making so many decisions for local government, they really had any power left?

An interesting point that came out early from both Vicky and Edward was concerning the potential for further devolution enabling councils to choose not only electoral periods but also whether to adopt PR as is now the norm in Scotland for local councils. Terry was not wholly against the idea, provided it also brought in mandatory voting to ensure fair distribution of votes. There was still concern expressed about weak or coalition governance though that hasn't proved the case in Scotland with a majority national government elected on a PR basis.

It also became apparent that even some members of this engaged audience were unclear on why the city used the elections by thirds system, what the alternatives were and were in some ways confused by the complexity of elections and options currently being used. Local elections are different to general elections, PCC elections and probably different to upcoming Regional Mayor elections.

After quite a long time discussing the various matters that arose I finally called for a straw poll of the audience, asking, do you think all out elections would be better for local democracy? 10 people or 50% voted yes. Asked whether they felt it would make local democracy worse, there were no votes supporting that opinion.

My own conclusion? This conversation needs to be had in greater depth within and without the council. The current system is broken with low turnouts and councillors being elected by around 1 in 5 of their voters.

Council operates on a permanent electioneering basis, impeding medium to long term planning and exacerbating the adversarial nature of council business meetings.

The strong leader & cabinet model means ordinary councillors can be seen as powerless and impotent (even amongst themselves) whilst stable 4 year election cycles would help those involved in committee work to better contribute to those roles.

Savings are, at the moment, never to be sniffed at and such savings could be used to improve other areas of democratic deficit around public engagement, such as webcasting and local public meetings.

Overall therefore, I believe an All Out election cycle would improve democracy locally and the better administration of council business. Further benefits may still be identified as a result of current and future devolution but the conversation must be had now to inform future discussions on the type of devolution we want.

My thanks to my partner organisations in this event, Opus Independents for their support in organising the Festival of Debate and to Sheffield City Council for organising and staffing what will probably be the most upmarket venue we will be using in this spring season. Thanks also to the panellists and audience for making the event so worthwhile.

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