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.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Devolution on the Wane?

The devolution agreement for the Sheffield City Region was first broken to the public, essentially as a done deal, in October 2015. At that point I wrote about it on this page.


It was hailed by many local politicians as a positive proposal that would return real power to the region and a benefit to the economy. The detail of the deal suggested otherwise to me and I made that clear. Despite local apathy and or concern over the deal it then began a lethargic progress through the decision making chambers of the the various Councils and the City Region itself.

Over 12 months later and after a couple of poorly received 'consultations' we are now into a period of wait and see. Wait and see whether the Derbyshire County Council legal challenge can derail the process. Wait and see whether the continuing failure of new deals to fall into line make this deal a less attractive option for the Region.

Since this challenge was launched in August, three other devolution deals have fallen by the wayside and others have failed to materialise.


In September four out of seven North East Councils voted down the deal they were offered and currently there is no new deal on the table or expected. The stumbling block here was Brexit and a lack of guarantees from Government on the loss of EU funding.

In November both the Greater Lincolnshire devolution deal and the Norfolk / Suffolk devolution deals came off the rails. In Greater Lincolnshire's case it was the imposed elected Mayor that caused the deal to fail. The deal was voted against in the County Council by 43 to 17. Without the elected Mayor there is no deal.

The Norfolk / Suffolk deal was stopped by a single Council, King's Lynn & West Norfolk, voting overwhelmingly against the deal and, as a result the Norfolk County Council never voted on the deal. Suffolk meantime may be offered a solo deal but that appears to be more like extra powers for the County rather than the devolution deals we have been told are vital to Regional powerhouses.


Other deals are simply failing to progress, at least as far as the public are concerned. The West Yorkshire deal, based around Leeds, has not been mentioned on their web site 'news' since August. York & North Yorkshire's deal appears to have barely moved since March.

It seems, to me, clear that this format of imposed devolution, requiring strong, elected mayors, and forced to accept a level of devolved austerity is failing to inspire the majority of politicians at the local level. It is also, largely, a mystery to the general public. They have not been involved in any of the ideas behind the move and therefore seem to care little for the outcome. It will, for most people, appear to be yet another level of bureaucracy squandering the taxpayer's money.


Will politicians listen to this grumbling groundswell against imposed solutions to local problems? .......Probably not.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Public Protests & Trade Union Law?

On Wednesday 2nd November, as I was preparing for the usual monthly Full Council meeting, my little corner of Facebook lit up with a story I found hard to believe. It appeared that South Yorkshire Police were about to use Trade Union law to move on members of the public protesting about the felling of Street Trees.


The obvious wrongness of this, for me, was glaring. These were not 'flying pickets' or aggressive, intimidating thugs. They were mostly middle aged, middle class protesters hanging about under a tree. The Police attempted to move on the protesters by warning them they were in breach of s.241 of the Trade Union Act of 1992 and would be liable to arrest if they refused.

The wording of the Act is as follows;

s241 Trade Union Act Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Section 241 – Intimidation or annoyance by violence or otherwise.
(1)A person commits an offence who, with a view to compelling another person to abstain from doing or to do any act which that person has a legal right to do or abstain from doing, wrongfully and without legal authority—
(a)uses violence to or intimidates that person or his spouse or civil partner or children, or injures his property,
(b)persistently follows that person about from place to place,
(c)hides any tools, clothes or other property owned or used by that person, or deprives him of or hinders him in the use thereof,
(d)watches or besets the house or other place where that person resides, works, carries on business or happens to be, or the approach to any such house or place, or
(e)follows that person with two or more other persons in a disorderly manner in or through any street or road.

I have seen no evidence in the various videos and photographs of the events that suggest “Intimidation or annoyance by violence or otherwise” from any of the protesters, the Amey employed workforce in the immediate area seem to be enjoying a quiet cuppa. This law is also clearly aimed at restricting the actions of Trade Unionists and not restricting the right to peaceful protest by members of the Public.

In the end two protesters agreed to stick it out and were duly arrested by the Police. They were then held for seven hours before being charged (even though the police computer didn't appear to have a code for their offence) and summonsed to appear at the Magistrates Court in Sheffield on the 1st of December.


https://www.facebook.com/groups/392913244219104/permalink/652496328260793/

(Click on the above image which will take you to the video of the arrest on the STAG Facebook group or click here -
https://www.facebook.com/groups/392913244219104/permalink/652496328260793/)



Having heard about the events of the morning, I asked a question at the Council Meeting; “Does Council agree with Trade Union Law being used by Police to prevent protest by and to arrest members of the public? Who provided the Police with the sheaf of papers and inspiration for this tactic, Amey, Council or some other?”

Julie Dore – Leader of the Council responded very adamantly to the question, saying that she did not agree with this law at all and did not agree (with it being used in this way).

Bryan Lodge – Cabinet Member for the Environment followed up by saying that, on receipt of the question from me, he had asked the question of Amey and of his Contract Management Team. Both denied having instigated this tactic and therefore the Police must have come up with this themselves.

Talking later to one of those arrested he commented that, before the Police came to talk to the protesters, they had been in conversation with Amey Supervisors for some time, this casts doubt on the answer from Bryan Lodge and warrants further questioning.

Coincidentally, today I was chatting with a friend who attended the Police & Crime Commissioner's
, Public Accountability Board meeting on Friday and brought the matter up with the new Chief Constable. In that conversation it became clear that the Chief Constable was unhappy at the use of this tactic as well, the fallout from that could be interesting.


The wider question of course is, who do the police work for? Is it the Public or the Corporations?

Then we should consider the potential for interference with Article 11 of the Human Rights Act which protects the right to protest and to freedom of association. According to Liberty, “The right to peaceful assembly cannot be interfered with merely because there is disagreement with the views of the protesters or because it is likely to be inconvenient and cause a nuisance ...” and “There is a positive obligation on the State to take reasonable steps to facilitate the right to freedom of assembly, and to protect participants in peaceful demonstrations from disruption by others. “ This includes protection from the Police, Army or the State itself.

Article 11 seemed to take precedence when it came to protests in Rotherham by the EDL, even though that was disrupting the lawful pursuit of their business for many of the towns shopkeepers. The EDL marches also included a significant threat to public order, something not present at the Marden Road incident.


A current South Yorkshire Police advertisement on their website asks the question “Whose pulling your strings?” That is a very good question.

Monday, 24 October 2016

A Week of Revelations? - an Active Citizen's View

I've just had something of a week for revelations, though of a prosaic nature rather than evangelical.


Monday the 17th October started the week in an unexpected manner. A visit to the SheffEx Conference at the Royal Victoria Hotel, the first, if Tony Carrol's hopes are met, of a forthcoming series of such events. The invite came through late last week but the running order had two interesting items for me. An update on the proposals for the Sheffield Retail Quarter (SRQ) and one on the inward investment from China.

Before that however were some other speakers. First up was Yuri Matischen, MD and part owner of Sheffield Sharks basketball team. This provided my first revelation, sports, leisure & tourism contribute £2.2Bn to Sheffield City Region economy and employ 44,000 people. That's something not talked about enough and they hope to put together a strategy to grow that with events that we can 'own' locally and that cannot be lost to competition from other cities or regions.

Next came Professor Vanessa Toulmin, head of Sheffield University's Public Engagement team. Less revelatory to some of us but still worth a comment, Sheffield's international reputation stands on four things; the 'Made in Sheffield' brand (much counterfeited in the past), Music, Beers & Arts. These also contribute to the idea of Sheffield as a 'Magnet City'. Developing and promoting these reputations and products should therefore increase the economy and inward investment.


Then we had David Slater, who made his fortune off building (what an emeritus professor of Urban Policy & Planning called) student warehousing in the St Vincent's district. He is now keen to see redevelopment of the Don Valley & Attercliffe, whilst changing it's designation to Sheffield East to avoid bad associations with sex industry and decay. This idea has since surfaced again in the Sheffield Star. I'm not sure that thousands of new family homes in one of the worst polluted districts in the city is an ideal solution to our housing problem but David Slater clearly sees money in it.

Later in the event, Chris Dymond of Sheffield Digital provided another revelation. Although I knew we had a thriving games & digital economy in the city he revealed that there were more than 14,000 jobs in this sector, providing 18% of the city's jobs, with high average salaries. On the down side however he also commented that each digital job was worth 5 traditional jobs to the economy and that in the next 20 years automation would take over some 20% of current jobs. This is something many of the Political Parties are failing to address in either their economic or education policies.


Bracketing Sheffield Digital were two contributions from Simon Green, Executive Director of the 'Place' portfolio, responsible for seven of the Councils directorates for business strategy, growth and regeneration. He addressed two issues, the Sheffield Retail Quarter (SRQ) and secondly the newly agreed Chinese inward investment to the city.

On the SRQ the big reveal was that Council, as the owners of the land and a now active development partner has listened, not only to it's own advisors but to the mood of the public (as expressed very well by the likes of Rupert Wood and the Alternative SRQ group, Nick Roscoe of Hallamshire Historic Buildings and others) by adapting the plans originally put forward, away from a single major shopping mall type project, to what is now termed a “retail led, mixed use scheme”.

It also appears that they will be respecting traditional street patterns and despite delays still maintain a healthy relationship with the key Major retailer in the City Centre, John Lewis. Changing shopping patterns have been a big reason for this change of mind, recognising the impact of internet shopping and the revelation (to them at least) that local independent shops are a major draw for increasing the spend in a city. Sheffield looking to be the first of the new, not the last of the old retail schemes.


Simon then talked about the inward investment expected from China. There was less to say here as the deal is very new but is basically contextualised by the changing face of inward investment from 'traditional' sources in USA and EU to newer Asiatic economies and investors. It may also be a way of private Chinese capital ameliorating their exposure to the weaknesses and risks of the Chinese economy. The initial information is that there will be £220M to be invested in 5 physical projects within the City & Region, both public and private. The first may well be announced within a matter of months. He highlighted that issues around the complexity of the British planning processes and finding projects that can be delivered in a timely manner are outstanding.


Further revelations were to appear later in the week, at the Sheffield City Council Cabinet Meeting on Wednesday. Regular readers will know that I am not averse to asking the occasional question at these meetings. Generally these questions are aimed at improving transparency in the way decisions are made or, sometimes, as a means of improving the lot for the City and Citizen.

Although I asked five questions at the meeting, only one would qualify as generating any revelation but a second revelation came after the meeting.


My first question was the revelatory moment: “It appears from a SY Police budget report that the force is utilising covert technology to capture data from the public's mobile phones without their consent.

"South Yorkshire Police report. A 2015/16 budget item called “IMSI Covert Communications” was earmarked £144,000. A separate line in the same budget – again called “CCDC” (covert communications data capture) – was allocated an identical amount: £144,000. South Yorkshire police confirmed that ‘CCDC’ and ‘IMSI Covert Communications’ are the same budget item." Quotation from Bristol Cable report.

Were Council aware of this system and it's use? Were the Council's representatives on the Police & Crime Panel aware of this system and it's use?”

The question was answered by Cllr Jackie Drayton (Cabinet Member for Children, Young People & Families) one of four Sheffield Councillors on the Police & Crime Panel. She admitted to not being aware of this matter, having recently being appointed to the PCP. She has promised to look into it and let me know. I find it quite disturbing that this technology can be implemented without, apparently, any knowledge within the City Council.

It illustrates, once again, the problems encountered by regularly changing committee members, caused mostly by the City's continued use of elections by thirds. Rather than all out elections. The latter would allow committee members to serve for four straight years gaining greater experience, rather than chopping and changing every year, leading to poor levels of quality scrutiny from our elected members.

The second revelation came after the meeting in a conversation with a Cabinet member who revealed the Council have decided to propose banning 'Fracking' on all Council owned land. This is not a total solution but, with the Council owning large tracts of land in the City (All parks, estates etc) this will go some way to hampering the companies that might wish to exploit this filthy and dangerous source of carbon based fuel.


A week of contrasts, good news and yet some concerning revelations. It is weeks like this that make me continue trying to make Sheffield decision making more transparent and simply better.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Raining on the Devolution Parade?

October's Now Then Magazine has an article from me that is a brief review of where we are on the devolution process for Sheffield City Region .

A week however, as they say, is a long time in politics and although the end of the process is in sight, the uncertainty is getting worse. Since I wrote the article, there have been developments. The City Region Combined Authority met on September 12th and item was to receive the report on the last consultation about regional governance and an update on the rest of the process. Minutes of that item are here. A link to the summary and the detail of the consultation is at the bottom of those minutes.

The main thing to note for me is that the City Region has a population in excess of 1.8 Million, whilst the public responses to the consultation amounted to 2,719. That equates to 1 in 660 people responding or 0.0015%. The response for Sheffield itself was 292. That's around 1 in 2,000 people that live in the city or 0.0005%. Putting this another way, incredibly poor engagement and understanding by the public.

Despite concerns being expressed, at the meeting, over this appalling response rate, the outcome was as expected. The meeting agreed to forward all the relevant papers to the Secretary of State, so he can prepare the draft order to be placed before Parliament. It is this order that will give legitimacy to the changes in both geography, including Bassetlaw & Chesterfield as constituent councils, and implementing the change to a Mayoral Combined Authority. In the meantime the Officers of the Authority will continue to try and get clarification on Theresa May's recent comments about devolutionary Mayors and the impact of the legal proceedings undertaken by Derbyshire County Council.

That draft order should arrive back on SCRA desks in time for it to be considered at the meeting on the 24th October. If that meeting agrees, the order will then go before Parliament for a vote as soon thereafter as possible, probably by mid November. Only then will the Electoral Commission begin work on the Mayoral election process, which should be finalised around the New Year.

The election of the Mayor will then take place in May of 2017.

As I point out in the article for Now Then, however, there are still questions to be answered about Chesterfield's status and, yet again, about which of these processes, Parliamentary vote or legal dispute, will take precedence overall. This devolution deal could still sink without trace, expect more on this in the next month.

Friday, 15 July 2016

The First 100 Days – The Mayor of Sheffield City Region

On the 14th July I attended an event organised by the Centre for Cities, an independent cities think tank. I won't comment on their political colour, check out their website and judge for yourself. It was hosted by the Centre's Chief Executive, Alexandra Jones.


The panel for the event were Lord David Blunkett - Chair of the Sheffield City Partnership Board, June Smith Engineering Employers Federation(EEF) and Dr Craig Berry – Deputy Director of Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute(SPERI). The audience amassed about 50 or so, mostly male, all white and generally over 50, reflecting the general apathy around this whole debate.

Alexandra Jones introduced the event as part 4 of the continuing programme of discussion on the priorities of City Region Mayors, to be elected in May 2017, focussing on the first 100 days of the role. She described the historic nature of the changes and the success of the Manchester Region in securing further deals above and beyond the original devolution agenda. She did also however express concern over the lack of certainty for the whole devolution agenda with ongoing changes in the Cabinet and the acknowledged role of Osbourne as the champion for these deals.

As she was speaking I have to say my own thoughts were more about this not being the least bit historic, as it was not a constitutional change, but just one more in a string of local governments re-organisations dating back to the 70's. My thoughts on the Manchester deals was around the £1Bn hole in their Health budget and their recent accession to the 'Justice' system powers due to have budget cuts of 25 to 30% next year. Devolution of powers or austerity & blame?


The first speaker was Lord Blunkett. His first comments were to clearly state that he was not going to put himself forward for the Mayoral job. That list is getting shorter by the day. He then went on to outline three areas he felt the Mayor should concentrate on in the first 100 days. Briefly these were; To have created a manifesto based on the ideals of the Sheffield 'Fairness Commission', to work to heal the divide in the city and the Region and to bring all the Councils together in common cause, recognising that sometimes the rivalries within the region and further afield were counter productive. To reach out to councils & councillors and ensure a definite role for them in the region. To look at the role of the public & civic society and potentially take on the lessons of the 'citizen's assemblies'. To develop something more than just an economic policy role for the Mayor, adding social policies as well. He briefly commented on Europe and envisaged a potential for the Mayor in engaging with EU cities to bridge the 'Brexit' gap and potentially a new Hanseatic League to foster European ties.


The next speaker was June Smith of the EEF. Her main points were about the Mayor's role in business and local government working together to optimise growth for the region. Getting planners to understand the needs of businesses and develop pro-business policies. There were also comments about the diversity of businesses in the region and the need for a broader range of businesses to be heard by the region and the Local Enterprise Partnership(LEP) and that the EEF could help with that. Finally that the Mayor's role with transport should ensure it supports growth of business and develop a consistent approach to business support.


Dr Craig Berry rounded off the speakers and he started with a warning that the current model of devolution was unlikely to deliver sustainability and growth particularly after Brexit. The theory on which the city regions were expected to succeed, 'agglomeration' around economic benefits, showed no evidence for developing successful cities and that the most successful cities were where the state had an integral role in involving social policies in the regions. He also commented that agglomeration was a divisive type of growth as it meant winners & losers. He asserted that we need to go further in to the basics of power and discuss on a national basis where powers should reside and make devolution plans appropriate to that outcome, before city regions could be truly successful. He was also concerned that the model in place would only further entrench the adversarial politics under which we currently operate, illustrating an assumption that seemed common to the panel that only political parties would field candidates.


The chair then opened the discussion to comments and questions from the floor. I won't try to provide comprehensive coverage, as the event will probably be available online in due course. My own comments and question were around the earlier comments I made on the lack of constitutional settlement for these devolution deals and the doubts around Manchester's deal and the transfer of austerity blame as well as powers. My final comment and question was to highlight the forecast by Barclay's that the UK is about to enter a year of recession and what would happen to promised funding if the city region failed to meet growth targets.

The responses were weak and centred around the idea that a positive and ambitious approach to the devolution deals and the Mayoral model will give business confidence enough to continue to invest. The crux of my question about the funding link to growth and the consequences of failing to meet those targets was not responded to by any of the panellists.


Where does that leave us? For me I feel the whole devolution agenda is now in serious trouble. Brexit has undermined the funding basis for a great deal of the regions ambitions, particularly for the Universities and the 'knowledge economy' they represent. The sacking of George Osbourne removes the champion of devolution from the game and with a cabinet minister at DCLG (Department of Communities & Local Government) who is a proven centraliser, he is responsible for the decision to close the Sheffield office of the Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) department, there may be precious little enthusiasm for continuing or expanding the whole process of devolution.

We are all whistling in the dark and hoping that the nightmare goes away. Meanwhile uncertainty and chaos reigns in Government and Opposition and the UK continues to drift.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Sheffield City Region Devolution - The Brexit Impact

On Monday 27th June 2016 I attended the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority (SCRCA) to hear the answer to a series of questions I put to them about the impact of the Referendum result.


The reason I was putting questions at this early stage was to see what the impact of the decision would be on current City Region projects and on the whole 'devolution' process for the region.

These are the questions I asked.

Urgent Questions to the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority Meeting 27th June 2016
Q1 How much of the SCRCA and LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) funding is directly related to EU membership? (value & percentage please)
Q2 What will be the impact of the referendum result on the SCRCA's Strategic Economic Plan (SEP)?
Q3 What will happen to the EU funded business support services?
Q4 What will be the impact on 14-19 year olds on the Employment Support Fund (ESF) support programmes?
Q5 Does the SCRCA expect agreed funding to now be frozen during exit negotiations?
Q6 Does the SCRCA expect 2014-2020 funding already spent to be clawed back?
Q7 How does the referendum result affect the draft scheme papers being considered by this meeting and should these proposals be delayed until the impact is fully appreciated?
Q8 Where does this leave the whole devolution process if the SCRCA are to be underfunded and unable to meet their growth commitments?
Q9 Was any of this discussed with Government ministers before the referendum and if so what was their response?

I admit my questions were given at short notice, over the weekend, but I was hoping that some of the matters in the questions would have been considered before the referendum took place. It certainly was by some as Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) held a series of round table discussions on the subject, one of which was in Sheffield and at which City Council and City region leaders were allegedly present.

I was therefore somewhat surprised to be informed by the Chair of the SCRCA, Sir Steve Houghton, (Leader of Barnsley Council) that none of this information was immediately available and some of the impacts would only come out over several months. I understand the comments on the impacts being slow to emerge but am more than somewhat shocked that they were unable to give a figure on the amount of EU investment we receive in the region. Surely this was information they used in their campaigning during the referendum.


At that point I suggested that I thought they would be able to at least answer question 9. The Chair had to check what that question was, (had he not read them before the non-answer I was given?) and then responded that, since the result they'd had discussions with Civil Servants about the devolution process and were advised by them to assume everything would carry on.

That was that. The meeting went on to rubber stamp the rest of the agenda items, setting the stage for the new devolution and the City Region Mayor, with barely a comment from any of the political leadership in attendance.


The responses or lack of them indicate to me a level of complacency within the City Region leadership about the referendum itself, the potential for a 'Leave' result and an almost negligent approach to their forward planning. What sort of organisation fails to consider all the potential outcomes of such an historical vote?

The Region and it would seem the Authority meant to be in charge of it are now floundering in the dark and for who knows how long? To carry on putting time and money into a project with such an uncertain future would seem to me to be the height of folly.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Time for a Reboot !

I am reflecting on the dreadful week that we have had. This piece is therefore emotional, for which I do not apologise. I am purposefully not naming names or pointing fingers and am therefore not supplying links to the news stories involved.


Yet another mass murder in the States, surrounded by a plethora of hatefilled politicians pretending to care and to grieve whilst doing nothing to address the issue of US gun laws. Then we have the awful and apparently frenzied murder of a Yorkshire MP by someone allegedly calling out “Britain First”.

These are both events driven by hate and fuelled by the adversarial politics of divisiveness, emnity and, again, hate. This has brought me to an inevitable conclusion. Politics, to quote my techy friends, needs a reboot. I saw a post yesterday from a Canadian friend which put some of my thoughts into that useful format of the Facebook meme.


“Have we tried turning the USA off and back on again?”

Unfortunately this toxic politicing not only applies to the hate filled rhetoric of the US Presidential race but to almost every aspect of US politics in the current climate of fear, prejudice and despair that they preach on a daily basis. Don't even get me started on the so called Christian clergy over there.

It also applies to the way our own politics is starting to drift more and more quickly towards the politics of division, destitution and here's that word again, hate. More and more UK politicians are drawn into words or actions that incite or inflame the actions of others. They create 'Others' for us to denigarate, blame and despise. Be that immigrants, benefit 'scroungers' or the workshy disabled. In this they are supported by much of the media and so called journalists who repeat politician's lies as if they were the truth and peddle and profit from the same hate that brought us to this violence.


We may like to reassure ourselves that this is only some oddball far right approach to politics and that most politicians are above it. I wish this was the case but, it starts in little ways that we allow as acceptable in our adversarial system. It escalates as we move up the greasy ladder of politics in minor ways and ways we talk about as 'policy' direction and 'regulation' and the inevitable route takes us to conflict and killing.

It starts in the adversarial, dismissive and disrespectful actions of Councillors in formal meetings, the casual berating, jeering at and abusing of their fellow councillors just for a different political view. It continues in the rhetoric of hate used by small minded politicians, from the right and the left, promoting division in our communities and alleging they wish to save us from some bogey man or other. It's ultimate expression in the UK is the deliberate policy decisions of Governments to do down sections of the British public for their difference, their origins, their frailties or just because they cannot function well in this manic globalised economy where no level of performance is ever quite good enough.

All the while politicians of every hue will claim to care and to be working for the best resolution to the problems besetting this world. I am sure that in some cases this is true but, many fall into the trap of promoting despair, division and hate through their words and sometimes their actions.


Evidence from the US is that the terrible events of Orlando will not change their politics, I can only hope that we have not yet become so debased and that we can see that the murder of an MP in such a manner is a reflection of our politics and it is our politicians that must address this toxic promotion of hate and must address it now.

It is time for politicians to stand up and be counted, reject hostility and hate in politics, promote respect and hope, before it is too late!