A community activist who fell in love with Sheffield as a student is now one of the leaders of a campaign to fundamentally change the way the city is governed. Dan Hayes reports.
Anne Barr first came to Sheffield in 1971 to study languages at the University of Sheffield.
Coming from the declining Lancashire town of Blackpool, she found the vibrancy of the South Yorkshire city instantly appealing.
This included not only the arts and culture on offer but also the number of community groups and people who took an active interest the city.
“There is a lot in Sheffield to tap into if you want to be engaged in community issues,” says 65-year-old Anne.
“That is what struck me most about the city when I first came here all those years ago.”
After spending 27 years teaching French and German at King Ecgbert School in Dore, she retired in 2000 and immersed herself fully in community work.
This included lots of volunteering as well as campaigning on environmental issues such as air quality on Abbeydale Road.
She has also stood twice as a Green Party candidate, but left the party four years ago and is perhaps best known now as a leading light of the long-running campaign to save Sheffield’s street trees. High-profile protests took place against the felling of thousands of trees and their replacement with saplings as part of a Sheffield Council highways project with contractor Amey. The council and Amey have recently agreed a new approach to the issue designed to reduce the number of healthy trees being felled as part of the work.
Anne says she is happy the saga seems to have finally subsided with the appointment of independent monitors, but still sad it took the destruction of 6,000 healthy trees to get here.
“Since the independent review began, so far the majority have been saved using engineering solutions that are in the contract,” she said. “But that is bittersweet because we think what about all those that have gone.”
In addition, £400,000 has been spent on trying to take tree protesters to court, all of which could have been avoided had the council taken a more consensual approach, she says.
Partly as a result of the way the tree saga was handled, a group of activists including Anne began thinking about how transparency, inclusivity and ultimately democracy could be enhanced in Sheffield.
It’s Our City! was launched last year with the aim of restructuring Sheffield Council to give more councillors – and ultimately more people – a say in how it is run.
They say that the current ‘strong leader’ model effectively means only nine out of the 84 councillors in Sheffield have any real power, with decisions taken in cabinet and then rubber-stamped by full council.
They would replace this with a committee system which would see less concentration of power in a small team of cabinet members, giving more representatives and electors a voice in the democratic process.
“It’s just as important an issue but it’s definitely not as sexy as the trees – it’s not clickbait,” she admits.
“If you see a beautiful row of trees then that is going to motivate people but when you are talking about governance issues it doesn’t pull at your emotional heartstrings. Most people absolutely get it but sometime you need that conversation rather than just getting people to sign up to something online.”
They currently have around 9,000 signatures of support – about halfway to the total they need to reach by August this year in order to force a referendum. “It is a huge thing we are trying to do. I sometimes can’t believe we are even trying,” she says. “To force a change of governance on city the size of Sheffield against all odds is hard work – but very rewarding.”
To sign the petition if you live in Sheffield, visit www.itsoursheffield.co.uk/petition.