I have been part of a working group of councillors looking at improving formal meetings, for the benefit of both the public and the council. We welcome this, as the Greens have continually pushed for greater openness, including webcasting of council meetings, for several years. This is by far the best way of letting the public see what goes on in the council chamber. Our full list of proposals is on the website.
September’s full council meeting was the first to start at the new time of 5pm, with shorter meetings, shorter debates and shorter speeches. Although we had worked hard to achieve agreement in the working group, the council meeting was characterised by the points of disagreement. We objected to Labour’s proposal to limit the number of motions (pdf) we could put forward.
At the moment, the council’s constitution allows councillors to put forward motions without a limit on their number. In the last 6 ordinary meetings, we have put forward 8 motions, on air pollution, the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in higher education, fossil fuel divestment, diversity in the theatres, funding for buses, HS2, trees, safety and a motion of no confidence in the council leadership.
Under Labour’s proposal, we would only be able to put four motions a year and none at all this month. Labour’s proposal was also to change the order so their own motions would always be debated first.
We challenged Labour’s power-grab by putting forward two motions anyway, one of them on the importance of upholding the constitution. The Chief Executive grudgingly admitted he had “no basis for rejecting the two Green motions.”
One of the recommendations from the working group was to be more open by being clear about who was proposing and seconding them so it was ironic that Labour’s proposal was put anonymously on the agenda paper. We said that if Labour wants to use their majority to change the constitution, they must do it openly.
There were petitions and public questions. Petitions included a request to withdraw the Freedom of the City from Aung San Suu Kyi in protest at the treatment of the Rohingya by the Burmese authorities. Although there was sympathy, this issue had to be deferred to another day.
Then there was a petition by Anthony Cunningham, with 7,538 signatures, asking to be provided with a “night-café.” This was very similar to his previous petition asking for a night-shelter. After a minor drama involving shouting and being asked to leave the council chamber, the debate was short and the issue referred to the Scrutiny Committee.
Three petitions did not have speakers so they were just referred to the Cabinet member without comment. Unusually, the number of signatures for each was not announced until the council was challenged. Only then was it revealed that the petition to save the elm on Chelsea Rd had 3,023 signatures (enough to secure a discussion at a Scrutiny Committee) and the petition to “stop debating trees” had only eight.
In fact the public interest in trees continued. In answer to Nigel Slack, the council responded that about 100 miles of streets were yet to be resurfaced despite the Core Investment Period coming to an end. We received a written answer to our question, which showed the council’s legal costs for obtaining injunction were £150,000. We were told the “evidence collectors” were not SIA-registered or DBS-checked. Unfortunately, Cllr Bryan Lodge side-stepped the question of why, Given that the Streets Ahead contract states that Amey is liable for any losses caused through trespass and protest, it was the Council – and not Amey – that bore these costs.
As questions about trees were left to the end of the public session, they were hurried and Sally Goldsmith was stopped from asking her question about the Vernon Oak. The Lord Mayor ordered her to sit down, at which point she publicly gave her resignation from the Labour Party.
Interestingly, this question was similar to my written question about the Chelsea Elm – “is it not wrong and disingenuous for the Council to make completely unsubstantiated claims?”
In public questions, Deborah Cobbett asked what the council was doing about the NHS’ “Accountable Care Systems,” the replacement for cuts in the Sustainability and Transformation Plans. The Cabinet member said there would be a paper to Cabinet in 2 weeks. There isn’t.
Peter Davies from the GMB asked why Labour-controlled authorities such as this one had “gone further than the Tories” in cutting wages of Veolia staff. The cabinet denied responsibility as it was an outsourced contract.
Once we got to motions for debate, it was about the Government and council promoting HS2 and the decision to abandon the electrification of the Midland Main Lane. Rob Murphy was the only speaker to point out the obvious connection between the two.
Labour’s other motion, on betting shops, had no absolutely connection to Sheffield, any more than any other town in Britain. Whilst all councillors agreed that betting shops cause a problem, we pointed out the contradictions between Labour’s national position and the Labour council’s statement of “how important this sector of the entertainment industry is within the city.”
Our two motions were voted on. We actually voted in favour of the Labour amendment to our motion on the constitution as we secured their confirmation that “changes to the constitution will only take place in accordance with the constitutional process.”
Our second motion called for an urgent reassessment of the supply and demand of purpose-built student accommodation. Our figures show that more bedspaces in these blocks have been approved for planning permission in the last 12 months than in the previous 5 years. We believe the council needs up-to-date information on the current situation. Labour voted against this proposal.
For a council meeting run on new lines, I thought the best analysis was from the Star’s reporter Alex Moore who tweeted “Not sure that was any more or less engaging than the previous format.”
Cllr Douglas Johnson
Sheffield Green Party