Martin Yarnit writes:
Local government politics is sedate, slow moving, obedient to the dictates of central government – for the most part. But recently there have been some ripples, big and small. Bristol and Liverpool have both discarded their mayors. Whilst Sheffield has witnessed a polite but determined upsurge of people’s power to bring local politicians to heel. So polite that most people still haven’t grasped the significance of the change.

When Sheffield Council’s new leader, Councillor Tom Hunt, issued an apology for the infamous street tree felling chapter of 2016-18, he remarked that it would be understandable if some people were never to forgive the authority. This was a more full throated act of contrition than his predecessor’s, Terry Fox, who insisted that the best way of making amends was for him to continue as leader of the council. The Labour Party’s National Executive Committee thought differently and the day after the May 2023 local elections it deposed him and his leadership team and replaced them with an up and coming young local politician who is also the deputy head of the University of Sheffield’s political economy research unit. Labour’s leadership had noted with growing concern photos in the national media of tree defenders in handcuffs being carted off in police vans while the party lost control of the city council and the Green Party trebled its council strength at the expense primarily of the governing party.

Hunt, buoyed by the decision of the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats to share power and committee chairs with Labour, immediately began to install a new political culture. Three councillors, one from each party, all women, told a local Compass meeting how collaboration was now the order of the day – even if the media was still obsessed with party dogfighting – and how local community groups were being encouraged to take part in the policy making process, in health and social care.

How it began
People we have spoken to, in or close to the Council, described how words like battle, war and conflict were increasingly used in internal conversations from 2016 onwards. Others referred to the bunker mentality that developed in the Council, describing a culture that was unreceptive to external views, discouraging of internal dissent and prone to group-think. – from the Lowcock Report
Sir Mark Lowcock’s 2022 inquiry into the tree felling affair, reluctantly commissioned by the council, revealed a determination on the part of leading councillors and senior officers to pursue a mistaken course of action even if it meant the arrests and detention of residents equally intent on stopping the operation. But some members of the cabinet and the ruling Labour group – including Olivia Blake, now a local MP – noting the steady outflow of support to the Green Party, wanted to call a halt and resigned their office.

Earlier, in 2018, a group of residents had formed the campaign group, It’s Our City, to press for changes to the way Sheffield was governed. Their target was the cabinet system that they argued left centralised power unaccountably in the hands of the leader of the Labour Group and a small coterie of decision makers at the expense of backbench councillors, and voters as a whole. Their weapon was the 2011 Localism Act that enabled local residents to call for a referendum if they could amass the backing of 5% of voters.

Having achieved their goal of winning support for a referendum with 26,000 signatories, the campaigners’ advocated a change back to a committee system. This proposal was supported by 65% of those voting in the May 2021 referendum that the council was now legally obliged to run. Covid slowed progress but following the local elections in 2022, the new system was introduced and the Labour Party and the Greens agreed to run a cooperative system of power sharing. The Liberal Democrats refused to join with Labour whilst Councillor Fox remained in office.

What it achieved
Although there was no further erosion of Labour’s power base in the council chamber after the May 2023 elections, Labour nationally noted that whilst the party had gained vote share across the country, in Sheffield it had gone backwards, and so ordered the putsch against Terry Fox. The result was a victory for people power – for the brave and determined opponents of the tree felling drive, for the activists who had successfully petitioned for a referendum and then won the case for a return to the committee system, and for the voters who had shown that they disapproved of the council’s actions and wanted change. So while the government pushes for more mayors and more centralization in local government, the people in some cities are saying they know better, that they prefer to see local politicians working together for the public good rather than mimicking the worst behaviour in the Palace of Westminster. Sheffield has set the precedent.