The biggest political scandal of recent years ended with a plot twist of truly melodramatic proportions, as good triumphed over greed and the whole rotten system was upended by voters. It’s a play that almost writes itself.
The so-called It’s Our City referendum in Sheffield had been triggered after more than 20,000 people signed a petition complaining at the way their city council made decisions.
Specifically, they took exception to a £2bn street management contract which appeared to give a private contractor free rein to cut down thousands of mature roadside trees that got in the way of its pneumatic drills. The council then attempted, disgracefully, to criminalise environmentally-minded protesters.
Eventually, an ombudsman found it had misled the public, misrepresented expert advice and acted with a general absence of honesty over the whole business.
Yet the-then council leader, Julie Dore, ruled out an inquiry into how it had been allowed to happen. So the denouement, in which not only the Labour majority but also the city’s entire decision-making structure was overturned, was glorious in its theatricality. It left the remaining Labour members in the invidious position of having to go cap in hand to the five newly-elected Green Party councillors in order to keep any grasp on power. How’s that for dramatic irony?
In a triumphant, two-fingered salute to councillors who put their own interests ahead of the public good – and kept doing so long after they had been called out – two-thirds of the electorate voted to scrap the present “leader and cabinet” system. In so doing, they fired a shot across the bows of every other local authority run on the same lines.
This cabinet system, sanctioned by the Local Government Act of 2000, is a Toytown version of the model used in Whitehall, in which a leader hands decision-making powers to an inner circle of around a dozen appointees. In the grown-up game, they’re known as ministers but in the peculiar lexicon of Town Halls they assume pompous titles like “executive member” and “portfolio holder”.
It had been the assumption amongst councillors that the public didn’t care about such matters. Bob Johnson, who was Sheffield Council leader until last week, took a particularly cavalier stance. “We’ve got bigger issues in front of us coming out of lockdown,” he said, somewhat dismissively. In the end, it was he who was dismissed, losing his Hillsborough seat to the Greens, who now effectively hold the balance of political power for the entire city.
Mr Johnson was right about one thing: voters don’t care about the small details. But being taken for fools is another matter. No-one is prepared to stand by and watch puffed-up local politicians behaving like the Mayor of Trumpton. Sooner or later, they’re going to get the toybox lid slammed on their fingers.
That’s exactly what happened in Sheffield, where the tree-felling fiasco was compounded by the unfairness of a system that allowed Labour to retain control of decision-making after the last election, despite having polled less than a third of the votes.
But the public’s verdict on all this betrayed a more general dissatisfaction with local government – for the perception of many council types is that they are bureaucratic nit-pickers, obsessed with jargon and imbued with self-importance. How else do you explain genuine job titles like “executive member for place” and “cabinet spokesperson without portfolio”? What do they even mean?
The Government of 10 years ago must have wondered this when they allowed councils to revert to the more transparent system of taking decisions by committee. Only a few authorities have done this voluntarily. The enforced transition in Sheffield may shake others from their complacency.
Down the road from City Hall, the Lyceum Theatre will shortly stage a production of Chicago – a prohibition-era romp set in another second city riddled with civic malfeasance. It’s based on a century-old play, yet in Sheffield, it could have been written just yesterday.
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