SheffieldPolitics Review of the Year: 2010

2010 has seen Sheffield become a second home for national politics, as well as placing the actions of the local authority under a much bigger microscope. SheffieldPolitics takes a timely look back at how it all panned out.

As the dust settled from 2009’s last big battle, over the closure of Abbeydale Grange School, January saw all three main parties join forces in opposition to the Labour Government’s plans to increase council house rents.

The leaders of the council’s Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green groups have signed a joint letter asking Prime Minister Gordon Brown to reverse the policy.

Lib Dem council leader Coun Paul Scriven said: “This isn’t about meaningless party politics, this is about trying to avoid financial hardship for many tenants across Sheffield.

“If the Government accept our case and change their mind it will save tenants hundreds of pounds.”

Coun Chris Weldon, Labour’s housing spokesman, said: “Labour will of course sign this letter, as we’re interested in getting the best deal for Sheffield tenants.”

Meanwhile, Nick Clegg was already fighting off amorous advances from his political rivals:

“I am being love-bombed,” Clegg says, grinning, a phrase used by the Tory party chairman, Eric Pickles, to describe courtship of political opponents.

“Without being truculent about it, I made it very, very clear right from the beginning that I was not interested in that kind of politics. History tells me that it would be daft for the Lib Dems to get involved in dalliances.”

Clegg insists it would be wrong to start “playing footsie” with his opponents before voters have had their say. “There will be no backroom deals. It is really the people, the voters, who count. It is not for politicians to speculate now how they would cobble together an administration if there is a hung parliament.”

In February, Sheffield’s Councillors rejected a pay rise to show solidarity with staff facing a pay freeze:

An independent panel is recommending basic councillors’ annual allowance of £11,742.45 is unchanged.

But it is proposing large increases in additional payments made to councillors with extra responsibilities.

The recommendations advise a £12,000 rise for the leader, which would bring their total allowance from £18,167.68 to £30,206.24, with £54,212 to be split between the other nine members of the Cabinet team.

But Sheffield Council leader Coun Paul Scriven said: “At a time when the council is going the extra mile to keep council tax increases low, it’s important we don’t see a big increase in the amount paid out to councillors.

“The Liberal Democrats don’t intend to approve the significant pay rises for senior councillors that the independent panel recommend.
“Personally, this means I won’t receive the £12,000 pay rise the independent panel recommends. I believe, if senior politicians talk tough on cutting down costs in the Town Hall to keep council tax low, we need to lead by example.”

The city celebrated it’s inclusion on the shortlist for European City of Culture, but the council’s media team were under fire for “misleading” the public with claims about housing investment:

The Lib Dem-controlled authority issued a press release announcing £111 million of investment in housing over the coming year.

But the majority is money which has already been announced over previous years – when Labour councillors were in power.

The investment over the 2010/11 financial year includes £59.1 million to carry out Decent Homes programme renovation work at 2,900 council houses – secured five years ago.

The council has also announced £2.87 million towards a scheme to rebuild housing at Scowerdons, Weakland and Newstead estates, in the Frecheville and Hackenthorpe areas, also secured a few years ago.

Coun Chris Weldon, Labour housing spokesman, said: “It’s misleading – the Lib Dem council appears to be recycling announcements of funding we secured years ago.

February also saw Mr Clegg visit Cambridge, and put his autograph on a bit of paper. Probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

 

March saw the the first of countless estimates of job losses due to council funding cuts from the BBC, who warned of “up to 1000” redundancies in the next five years.

In Westminster, Labour were rushing to pass the last of their legislation as parliament drew to a close. The Digital Economy Bill, which was controversially passed with minimal scrutiny in the “wash up” drew much criticism, as well as some creative protests:

When veteran Central MP Richard Caborn announced he was to retire from parliament, it’s unlikely he would have imagined his last days in the job quite as they turned out. March saw him caught in a “cash for influence” sting arranged by Channel 4’s Dispatches, after he offered access to his considerable Westminster connections for £2,500 a day “plus expenses”.

Come April, the general election campaign was in full swing. Sheffield, unique in being home to a party leader and having a battleground constituency in its’ boundaries, was getting a lot of attention, and some high profile visitors.

Eddie Izzard announced his plans to run for office, while offering support to Central Labour candidate Paul Blomfield. There were no end of cabinet ministers pounding the streets, notably one Ed Miliband. SheffieldPolitics spent a day on the doorstep with Ed, then Climate Change Secretary, who talked to us about Labours plans for electoral reform, and his reaction to the election debates.

Baroness Williams meets a balloon seller on Fargate

Baroness Williams meets a balloon seller on Fargate

As May dawned and election day loomed, the city’s last campaign visitor also gave perhaps the most inaccurate prediction of the year. Veteran Liberal Democrat Baroness Williams categorically pooh-poohed the idea of her party joining a coalition that did not have full proportional representation as a strict condition.

 

 

Last week David Cameron accused Mr Clegg of trying to “hold the country to ransom” after insisting that reform be a pre-condition for offering support to any party in a hung parliament.

Baroness Williams, 79, said: “It’s not the country. The country’s completely lost faith in the first-past-the-post system. They did some time ago.

“It’s absurd to think that the country is devoted to first-past-the-post when they clearly aren’t. I would say if anyone’s been held to ransom, it’s Mr Cameron.”

Of course, we all know what happened next. Paul Blomfield beat Paul Scriven to parliament by 165 votes, but the Lib Dems maintained council control, despite losing their majority.

And despite hundreds of students being turned away from polling stations in his constituency, Nick Clegg was re-elected as the honourable member for Sheffield Hallam.

A story broke in June which would dominate politics in Sheffield for the rest of the year, the cancellation of the government loan to Sheffield Forgemasters. Shortly after, the new government outlined it’s strategy of cuts in its first budget, which drew the first of an unprecedented number of public protests in the second half of the year.

In July, the council narrowly approved £6.5m in budget cuts, during a heated assembly of the full council.

Far from the sombre faces put on by George Osborne and the cabinet on budget day, the Lib Dem cabinet appeared in more jovial spirits this afternoon. After pointing out that the country was paying out £80,000 a minute in interest, three councillors (Colin Ross, Shaffaq Mohammed and Simon Clement-Jones) openly joked about their three minute “quarter million pound” speeches. Their humour was met with uproarious laughter from the Lib Dem side of the chamber and stony faces opposite.

August saw the sad death of former Leader of the Council Jan Wilson, who had been suffering from lung cancer.

Council Chief Executive John Mothersole said, “John Mothersole, Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council said: “We are deeply shocked. Jan will be sorely missed. She was an inspiration to us all. She was totally committed to working for Sheffield and was recognised for her dedication by being awarded a CBE in 2006. Her work with Yorkshire Forward was also celebrated. As well as being admired and respected locally, she was also much admired regionally and nationally.”

August also saw Cllr Scriven take Sheffield Futures to task over their planned redundancies, claiming their funding cuts do not justify the number of job cuts. Questions were also raised about the lack of transparency surrounding an emergency loan to struggling museum caretaker charity MuseumSheffield.

Sheffield’s Labour group elected a new leader, Julie Dore, at the beginning of September. A few days later, just before visiting Sheffield to launch the Local Enterprise Partnership, Nick Clegg announced he was to sell his constituency home, prompting questions about whether he would keep his promise to return any profit to the taxpayer.

On his return, Mr Clegg was greeted by a noisy protest outside the Town Hall, and by cries of “Judas”

A busy month, September also saw the Liberal Democrats announce that they had reduced the number of council “fat cats”, but they were shaken just days later by the defection of Councillor Ben Curran to the Labour Party. There was much noise about data theft and police investigations, but it ultimately came to nothing. Cllr Curran crossed the floor and the Liberal Democrats no longer had a working majority in the council.

October was the month that Sheffield City Council finally stood up to their party chiefs in Westminster, rebelling to condemn the proposed rise in tuition fees. This was the story that would dominate the news through November, as students, schoolchildren and teachers, angered by the Browne review and by the proposed scrapping of EMA repeatedly marched on the Town Hall. Each demonstration was larger and louder than the one before.

And finally, as if to give us the Christmas present we all needed after such a depressing year…in December, this happened:

Gloomy as the year may have been, you couldn’t ever call it boring. Most other reviews of the year tend to end with predictions for the year ahead, but looking back on this year’s surprises, twists and turns, it’s probably best just to go along for the ride. These are uncertain times, and here’s to more uncertainty in 2011.

Comment: Does Paul Scriven’s hotel video break any rules?

The emergence of Paul Scriven’s musical debut yesterday has certainly been controversial among the people of Sheffield and beyond, but did it actually break, or even bend any rules?

Standards for England, who monitor ethics in local government, say it’s unlikely that the video breaks the Council’s Code of Conduct.

The code (Par 8, sub par 1b) makes it clear that members may not take actions or decisions which might be of benefit to family or friends.

While Mr Scriven admitted to the Yorkshire Post that he made the video as a “favour to a friend” (the general manager of St Paul’s Hotel), it’s unlikely a complaint on this basis would be upheld as the video makes no mention of his position as a councillor. As Mr Scriven says, “I did this as Paul Scriven, not as a councillor.”

There is a question as to whether Cllr Scriven should declare a personal interest should any matters concerning St Paul’s arise in council in future, as despite declaring on twitter that he was not paid for the appearance:

…it could be interpreted as employment under Par8, sub par 1a(iv) of the code linked above.

One rule which the video almost certainly breaks is the Copyright, Designs and Patents act 1988, which forbids modifying the lyrics of a published song without first obtaining permission from the copyright holder. While it is unlikely that Cllr Scriven would be held responsible for this action, unless the producer of the video (apparently the general manager of St Paul’s Hotel) has obtained written permission from Lou Reed or his publishing company, he could be open to criminal prosecution.

The final rule that is most certainly broken by the video, is the unwritten law that you should never, ever cover Perfect Day. It’s about heroin for goodness sake, and look how creepy SuBo’s version turned out.

SheffieldPolitics has also been attempting to clear up some of the apparent inconsistencies in the story given by Cllr Scriven as to how he came to make the video.

When the video first came to light, Cllr Scriven made several postings to his Twitter account, the first being an explanation that:

However, the Yorkshire Post later reported him saying he had

“stepped in at the last minute” to film the two minute, 47 second video after arriving at the hotel on other business and hearing that an actor booked for it had dropped out.

As Mr Scriven helped out at the last minute, it must be assumed that the vocal track, which sounds like his voice, was recorded in a studio at a later date.

The other question is about the intended use of the short film. Mr Scriven, again on Twitter, said it was a training video intended for internal use only.

It’s hard, however to see the benefit an internal training video could have for local tourism:

Even if the above are simply the fallout of Twitter’s 140 character limit, or even lapses in memory, it’s hard to argue that Cllr Scriven’s involvement in the video isn’t a lapse in political judgement.

Despite it clearly being a work of fiction, is it sensible for the Leader of the Council to be filmed buying purple cocktails on a VIP card in a swanky hotel in a week which saw council workers warned they’ll be seeing a pay freeze?

Cllr Scriven accuses his opponents (which we at SheffieldPolitics, it should be noted, do not consider ourselves to be) of suffering sense-of-humer failure, and maybe he’s right. Maybe some politicians do take themselves too seriously.

It’s understandable though, that in such straitened times, many would fail to see the funny side. People want to believe politicians take their jobs seriously, and whether as a result of this, or of the hysterics and braying from both sides of the aisle every other week at meetings of the full council, they are finding it difficult to do so in Sheffield.

We approached Cllr Scriven for clarification and comment, but at the time of publication he had not replied. To be fair, it is Christmas and his Twitter says he’s got a nasty chest infection. SheffieldPolitics wishes him a very happy Christmas, hopes he feels better soon and invites him to get in touch with any clarifications he may wish to make in the New Year.

Sheffield Council and Sheffield Liberal Democrats declined to make any official statement, as it is “not a council matter”.

Sheffield Lib Dem Council leader Scriven sings for hotel chain promo

Paul Scriven, leader of Sheffield City Council stars in a promotional video for Mercure Hotels, which has emerged online.

In the video he sings (or at least mimes to) the Lou Reed classic Perfect Day, but with the lyrics reworked to tell the story of a tired businessman arriving at the hotel after a Hectic Day.

The Mercure St Paul’s Hotel in Sheffield is set to act as a base for delegates to the Liberal Democrats annual conference in March.

It has played host to various council related events and conferences, most recently a leadership summit for Sheffield First Partnership, of which Mr Scriven is chair.

On his twitter feed, Mr Scriven has insisted that the video was “an internal training video”, and that he was not paid.

Thanks to @dentonmartin for bringing this gem to our attention, and to all who helped out with SheffieldPolitics’ recovery of the video, which was deleted by the original uploader this morning.

Lib Dem council defy coalition in opposition to tuition fee rises

Nick Clegg yesterday faced a backlash in his Sheffield constituency, as the Lib Dem leader of the city council publicly opposed increases in tuition fees.

Cllr Paul Scriven, leader of the council, said “Sheffield is home to thousands of students and families who might be thinking of sending their children to university in the future. I’ve made my position clear; I don’t want to see students saddled with unbearable levels of debt. Therefore we oppose any increase to tuition fees.

“We may be in coalition in Westminster but we’re not in coalition in Sheffield and as Liberal Democrats we will continue to voice our opposition to measures with which we disagree.”

Cllr Scriven also ruled out Labour’s favoured policy of a graduate tax, calling it “unfair”.

A government review, led by former BP chief executive Lord Browne, recommended removing the cap on student fees, allowing universities to set their own rates.

But Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister and MP for Sheffield Hallam, said earlier this week that the coalition were considering keeping an increased cap. “I am uneasy about the idea that you, in theory, have unlimited fees,” he said. “So we are looking at something which would be more restrained.”

Business secretary Vince Cable said last week that he was considering a cap of around £7,000 per year. Currently undergraduate students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland pay a maximum of £3,290 per year.

Cllr Scriven will put forward a motion opposing the proposed rise at next week’s meeting of the full council.

Both Clegg and Cable, who delivered the Browne review to the House of Commons pledged to vote against rises in tuition fees before May’s general election.

Lib Dem defector cleared of data theft allegations

Paul Scriven and Ben Curran, pictured with a Walkley Resident in April.

Paul Scriven and Ben Curran, pictured with a Walkley Resident in April

The investigation into Cllr Ben Curran, who was accused of data theft after he defected from the Liberal Democrats to the Labour group, has been dropped by South Yorkshire Police.

Paul Scriven, Leader of Sheffield council accused Cllr Curran of taking public survey data from the Lib Dems, which had been collected during the general election campaign. He reported Cllr Curran to the police, and wrote to Labour group leader Cllr Julie Dore requesting he be suspended pending the investigation.

South Yorkshire Police today confirmed that the investigation had been dropped.

Acting Detective Chief Inspector Bob Chapman said: “South Yorkshire Police has investigated a complaint made by the Liberal Democrats relating to Ben Curran.

“Following this investigation, no further action is to be taken. This outcome has been agreed with all those involved.”

A spokesperson for Sheffield Liberal Democrats said: “South Yorkshire Police have confirmed to us that Councillor Curran did obtain the files of personal data two days before he defected to the Labour Party, but that he did not pass it on and that it has now been returned.

“As he obtained the data while he was still a Liberal Democrat councillor, they have said he did not commit an offence and we will not take this matter any further.”

The Labour group did not suspend Cllr Curran, who remained silent on the matter until releasing a statement yesterday, in which he said: “The Police have confirmed that there is no case to answer. I hope that, as Councillors, we can all now focus on representing our constituents and doing what is best for Sheffield.”

Council to launch inquiry into £6m expenses bill; 8,500 council staff to have contracts renegotiated

Council Leader Paul Scriven has promised an inquiry after it was revealed that the Council’s employee expenses bill totalled £6m for last year.

The Liberal Democrats say a crackdown on “perks” such as non-essential staff training, car allowances and hospitality has saved half a million pounds compared to when Labour were in control of the council.

Earlier this week unions were notified that up to 8,500 council employees would face changes to their employment conditions, including pay freezes and removal of sick pay.

Councillor Simon Clement-Jones, Liberal Democrat Cabinet member for Finance, said: “Whilst some essential training and transport costs are required by vital front line staff such as care workers for example, the Council is spending too much on other unnecessary employee perks.

“If we are to deal with the reductions in our budget whilst trying to protect vital front line services, then Labour councillors in Sheffield must not block our plans. This might not be unpopular with the Unions, but prioritising spend on front line services instead of employee car allowances and subsistence payments is the right thing to do. Labour should put local taxpayers before their Trade Union paymasters.”

It seems, however, that the unions are less concerned with the cuts to perks, as they are with the size of the hospitality bill at a time when 8,500 council employees are likely to have their contracts re-evaluated.

Speaking to the Star, Mark Keeling, Unite convenor at Sheffield Council, said: “Our members are facing a bleak future. If the gravy train is still running for those at the top, it’s time it hit the buffers.

“It’s not the job of officers to wine and dine using the public purse.
“The council’s job is to provide services and employment.”

The GMB union revealed this week that they had received notice that 8,500 workers at Sheffield City Council would have their contracts renegotiated. The council say that this does not necessarily mean 8,500 will lose their jobs. A spokesperson for the council said yesterday “There haven’t been any figures put on that.

“The Council has not issued staff with redundancy notices and it is misleading to suggest that we have. What we have communicated to the Trade Unions is, that as part of our ongoing negotiations with them, we are following national guidance.

“There is a process that, by law, we have to follow and certain formalities have to be complied with and that includes issuing what is known as a HR1 notice to the Government and shared with the Trade Unions. We are now at that stage.

“This statutory notice is part of the formal and technical process when two parties haven’t yet reached a collective agreement. We are still continuing to meet with the Trade Unions and are still working towards a collective agreement. ”

The changes which are being negotiated with trade unions include the removal of the first three days of a workers’ sick pay, a pay freeze and the offer of career breaks and voluntary early retirement.

Police to investigate council defector Curran for “downloading personal data from Nick Clegg’s office”

UPDATE 29/9/10 – 5.30pm

Cllr Curran has released his first official statement since allegations of data theft were made last week.

He said “The Police have confirmed that there is no case to answer. I hope that, as Councillors, we can all now focus on representing our constituents and doing what is best for Sheffield.”

Ben Curran, the Sheffield City Councillor who defected from the Liberal Democrats to Labour on Friday, is under investigation by the police, it has emerged.

Council leader Paul Scriven has asked Labour leader Julie Dore to suspend Curran for allegedly downloading personal data about thousands of voters from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s office days before his defection.

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