So, what happened at December’s meeting of the full Sheffield City Council?
Rob Murphy described the way Labour leaders in South Yorkshire had handled the South Yorkshire devolution deal as making the Government’s handling of Brexit look like a masterpiece in international diplomacy. The LibDems’ Paul Scriven was shouted down by repeated “points of order” by Labour councillors who didn’t like what he said, in retaliation for his point of order correcting Labour’s factually incorrect statement about school funding cuts. The scenes summed up Labour’s chaos.
The motion on the devastation and loss of lives in Yemen was brought up the agenda, as there were several members of the public asking questions about stopping the arms trade to the Saudi Arabian government. Labour’s Cllr Abtisam Mohammed, herself the first female councillor of Yemeni origin, spoke movingly of what is happening in Yemen now and we gave her a standing ovation.
Our amendment proposed adding some action to the Labour motion. We called for an immediate halt to arms sales to Saudi Arabia, reflecting local campaigners and the letter signed by Caroline Lucas MP and other party leaders to the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, who could use his powers over export controls.
Fortunately, all councillors voted for our amendment, so our message will now be sent to the government.
Other motions were on inequality in the schools system, where we were successful in replacing part of the LibDem motion, and on devolution. We took issue with the LibDems placing responsibility for a school’s success or failure on the staff and students, pointing out that the quality of a child’s education in Sheffield still depends too much on where they were born and where they live.
The devolution motion was all about Labour splits and led on from Cllr Iqbal’s “blistering attack” on regional mayor Dan Jarvis. We urged Labour in South Yorkshire to stop supporting the Conservative government and instead look to Yorkshire-wide devolution. Unfortunately, the LibDems joined the Tory-Labour coalition and voted against our amendment.
Green Party member Graham Turnbull brought a petition of 1415 signatures with a request to close off roads to cars at school entrances at peak times for better safety and air quality. Cllr Jack Scott made promises to meet with him and other interested councillors.
John Grayson of SYMAAG brought a petition, which referred to the previous promises by Cllr Jackie Drayton about placing refugee families with children in B&B accommodation – specifically the Earl Marshall Guest House in Burngreave – which is generally against the council’s legal duties to homeless people. He spoke passionately about the experiences of distraught families having to share small kitchens and bathrooms with vulnerable, single men. He also pointed it was BME families who were treated this way. In answer to public questions, Cllr Jim Steinke said that the council had no record of any of the families’ ethnicity. In reality, applicants for housing are always asked to supply equality monitoring data for just this reason. Cllr Steinke admitted that, as of today, there were still 9 families being accommodated in B&B. He made further promises to help them move on.
A fourth petition complained that the council had reneged on promises to help keep facilities at Woodbourn Rd athletics stadium, describing the first students from a state school winning at national-level competitions but having to train by parents shining their car headlights onto the pitch.
A public question from Graham Wroe about the problem of slippery pavements not being swept led to Lewis Dagnall assuring the public that it is much easier to walk on Amey’s new smooth pavements. He said Streets Ahead will respond to complaints within 14 days and felt the city is now a much better place for “active travellers.”
In the half-time break, councillors were treated to some incredibly moving and challenging music from the highly-talented Matt Howden of Sieben, who was present with some of his sound technician students from Red Tape Studios. It was great to chat to them in the break about their growing confidence over the course of the year.
At the reconvened meeting, Members Questions continued the theme of the Labour Cabinet avoiding giving answers to topical questions. It seems a common tactic is to answer any question other than the one asked. Another is to shout abuse at the questioner. Cllr Jack Scott evaded my question about seeking protection for heritage in the Castlegate development area. He also refused to answer my question on allocations of the community infrastructure levy (CIL) to wards – despite the fact that officers posted the information on the council’s website later that same day.
There were interesting answers on the cost of replacing defective cladding on the Hanover Tower Block. Cllr Jayne Dunn had previously stated that the cost of its removal and reinstatement was estimated at £425,000. Cllr Jim Steinke now admitted the actual cost was nearly ten times that – almost £4 million. No-one had been held accountable for the decision to install the wrong cladding and – well over a year later – we were told there was still an “ongoing investigation.” However, the council has no plans to reclaim the cost of defective cladding from the original installer and in fact has even given them the new contract without going out to tender or getting other quotes.
The council ended the meeting with what should have been a routine vote on a report from a Scrutiny Committee about the role of the Lord Mayor. The Labour Whip, determined to underline the voting record, called for a roll call vote … but then things went wrong: some Labour councillors voted “for” and others said “abstain.” Urgent complaints came from the Labour front bench that they didn’t know what they were voting on and, whatever it was, they thought they should be voting on something else – or not voting on it – lead to chaos and confusion. It became obvious they had not read the committee’s recommendation before being told what to vote.
The chair of the Committee the report had come from (Cllr Denise Fox) attempted to clarify that she thought the report was just for information. Unfortunately, even she was mistaken. Further attempts to propose an alternative motion whilst the vote was under way led to advice from officers to sort out the mess. Ultimately, most Labour councillors abstained and the LibDems voted against it – so Labour lost the motion they had called for a recorded vote on.
This must have made no sense to anyone still in the public gallery. Fortunately, like so many other things debated in the council chamber, the outcome has no real consequence.
Something that did have a consequence was Labour’s Cllr Maroof somehow managing to send a pornographic picture to “Mums United.” This happened just after the group’s Sahira Irshad had presented a petition to council. Cllr Alison Teal has been doing a lot to support Mums United (a group that Cllr Maroof claims to have set up) because of really serious issues of intimidation and targeted attacks carried out by gangs in the Abbeydale corridor and Lansdowne. It’s unclear what will come of the petition but, by the end of the meeting, Cllr Maroof had been suspended from the Labour group.
So no-one can say councillors don’t live in the real world: like so much of life, this council meeting swung between grotesque tragedy and confused absurdity.