Council committees instead of cabinet: more hope for heritage?
What positive outcomes are heritage campaigners looking for if Sheffield City Council changes its system of governance from today’s “leader and cabinet” model, which limits power to a group of ten councillors from a single political party, to a committee system? That was what I needed to get across to the Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee, at an evidence session triggered by the successful “It’s Our City” petition. The new system will be put to a referendum in May 2020, and if approved by the people of Sheffield could see a great change in how the city is run.
Heritage could benefit from change, but we need to ensure change is real. As the Centre for Public Scrutiny have pointed out,
“If leader-cabinet … sees a small group of leading members making decisions, shutting down dissent and seeking to control non-executive members, whether in their own group or the opposition, there is little to suggest that the same people will change their approach when they are committee chairs.”
[CfPS, Musical Chairs p18]
So, a change in attitude is vital, but the most fundamental change will be needed to move to an all-party, non-partisan culture. Ironically, one of the concerns which led to the move away from committees in 2000 was that they were:
“Prone to exclusive control by the majority party (i.e. all the committee chairs, from the majority party, acting as a de facto cabinet)”.
[CfPS, Musical Chairs p9]
One of the few that still takes important decisions independently of cabinet is the Planning Committee, often the last ditch in trying to save threatened heritage. My recent experience is that they are already non-partisan (as they are obliged to be), although this is not everyone’s experience. They also show they need for committees to maintain skills and knowledge. Planning decisions usually follow an officer’s recommendation, which is presented at length, only a few minutes being allowed for any contrary view. The committee may disagree with the recommendation, but may lack the knowledge to challenge what they hear effectively. The committee had no power to prevent demolition of the Old Coroner’s Court in Nursery Street (made likely by a series of Council policy failures), so refused permission for its proposed replacement, but then struggled to rationalise this.
Training for Councillors should be routine, but they also need advice from experts, in parallel with the expertise of specialist officers. The Conservation Advisory Group consists of highly motivated local people, many of them professionals, and gives free advice to help the Council to make good decisions. Ill-advised Planning cuts could see the end of this group, as well as valued specialist officers. The Council needs to move toward better-informed decision-making, but it is actually going in the opposite direction.
We also need continuity and consistency. The abrupt change in policy when a cabinet member keen to pursue the advantage of heritage was replaced by an enthusiast for unfettered development resulted in the short-notice cancellation of the public consultation on the Castlegate Conservation Area, and when this was challenged, a threat was made to all the city’s Conservation Areas. The potential impact to the city’s unique character and the inward investment this attracts, to the city’s reputation, and to the proven economic and well-being benefits of the historic environment should never have been put at risk by a single individual. Any new system must place strict limits on the power of individuals: there must be No Dictators, and a new generation of committee chairs will be needed to avoid this.
Stability and distributed responsibility will foster long-term relationships. Policy lurches are bad enough, but having to build new relationships with cabinet members and their advisers from scratch is a waste of everyone’s time. Enduring relationships allow for early engagement with the community, seeking input not just before a decision is made but while it is being formulated. Heritage organisations are already discussing the next phases of Heart of the City II with the Council and its design team, influencing the scheme to work with and celebrate heritage, without compromising viability. This more open and inclusive approach will result in a more successful scheme and should be a benchmark for all decisions.
As important as being heard is our perception that we can make a difference. Demonstrable change and the perception of that change must be measured by sampling public opinion both now and in the future. The system may change, but it can only succeed if we believe in it.
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