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Agenda item

Public Questions and Petitions

To receive any questions or petitions from members of the public.



Public Question in respect of Electric Vehicle Charging Points and Governance




Russell Johnson commented that the Government had recently published a report concerning the numbers of electric vehicle charging points per thousand of population and that had shown that, in comparison to other cities, Sheffield had a relatively low number of charging points with 8 per thousand population as compared to Liverpool with 24 or Newcastle with 26. He said that Sheffield was in the bottom twenty percent of local authorities nationally.




He asked whether it was agreed that this was another symptom of ineffective governance and particularly with regard to the climate emergency which the Council had declared.




Councillor Bob Johnson, the Cabinet Member for Transport and Development, responded and said that the Council was seeking to form a partnership with a local taxi company for the roll out of mobile electric vehicle charging devices and whilst being a scheme that had not been finally agreed, it could be a potential solution. The units were portable and had both rapid and standard charging points. They also had toilet and welfare facilities. This initiative was something which the Council could look to support and it could be working in time for the introduction of the City’s Clean Air Zone. If this was to be a partnership arrangement with the Council, then the charging points would not be solely for the use of City Taxis.




Public Question Concerning Tree Felling




Russell Johnson made reference to e-mails which were released under freedom of information and which he said revealed perfidious behaviours by some people involved in the tree felling. He asked whether, in the light of this, the Deputy Leader of the Council was prepared to apologise to the people of Sheffield for distress caused and the unnecessary destruction of valuable environmental assets. He said that such an apology was long overdue.




Councillor Mark Jones, the Cabinet Member for Environment, Streetscene and Climate Change, responded that he would be pleased to provide a written response to Mr Johnson. He said that there were ongoing developments, including in relation to joint tree inspections and other aspects of the new approach taken by the Council. He would write to Mr Johnson with regards to this matter and the contents of the information from freedom of information requests and would also be pleased to have a discussion with him. He said that his focus was on trying to move forward to get the best solution for the management of trees in the City.




Public Question Concerning Injunction




Russell Johnson stated that with reference to the injunction concerning street tree protesters and which would be in force for a short time before it was due to expire, it was clear that the High Court injunction, restraining and intimidating citizens, was based on affidavits and legal arguments, the veracity of which were becoming increasingly questionable and he said that the truth was slowly being obtained from the Council through freedom of information requests. He asked whether the Council would therefore now desist from pursuing costs awarded against peaceful tree defenders as part of that injunction.




Councillor Terry Fox, the Deputy Leader of the Council, stated that as regards the injunction, the Council did have policies of protecting taxpayers' money and that policy would continue to be followed, unless there was a policy change in the future.




Public Question Concerning Streets Ahead




Isabel O’Leary asked whether it was time for the Council’s leadership to reflect on the mistakes made in relation to the award and handling of the Streets Ahead contract and to apologise for the loss of five thousand healthy mature street trees. She said that also adversely affected were the campaigners that had been maligned and persecuted by the Council, including an injunction taken out at great expense to Council tax payers. She said that South Yorkshire Police was drawn in to committing resources to the attempted felling of trees and that there had been false allegations of assault made against tree campaigners which included investigations and arrests.




She asked whether, as public servants wanting to do the best for the people of Sheffield, would the Council support an independent inquiry into how a self-monitoring contract for £2.2 billion was ever agreed; why half the street trees of Sheffield were contracted to be felled; and who was responsible for the persecution of people trying to save mature healthy trees at a time of climate emergency. She said that a recognition of mistakes made and sincere apologies would help to rebuild trust in local institutions and could harness the energy, expertise and commitment of campaigners.




Councillor Mark Jones, the Cabinet Member for Environment, Streetscene and Climate Change, responded that a meeting was to be held with the Bishop of Sheffield on 19 December to discuss ways forward and what could be done. A document had been jointly prepared between the Council and others to look at how matters could be taken forward with regards to tree management in the City. There were points of detail included in the questions above with regard to which he would need to obtain clarification. He said that he would provide a written response to Isabel O’Leary.




Public Questions Concerning the Old Town Hall




Nigel Slack stated that the Old Town Hall, which he said was one of the most significant heritage buildings within the city centre, was to have its identity and significance as a heritage asset gutted by the proposals lately passed by the Planning Committee. He commented that against the objections and concerns of heritage experts in the Victorian Society and Historic England and alongside the objections of the community experts from the Friends of the Old Town Hall, the Council had chosen private developer profit over respect for the significance of this heritage asset.




He said that it had chosen to downgrade the guidance of the National Planning Policy Framework, where normally it stressed the need to adhere to it and to allow a proposal that he said was short on detail in respect of the safeguarding of the internal fixtures and fittings that defined the building’s history and its place in Sheffield's heart, including the place where the unfair elections of 1832 were challenged by the Sheffield public and where 5 citizens of the City were left dead on the steps, shot by soldiers of the 18th Irish Foot. He said that the opportunity to understand that historic context was being lost.




He referred to comments made by the Victorian Society and Historic England and said that the objections of the Friends of the Old Town Hall supported these concerns and objections, additionally commenting on the lack of detail in the plan’s heritage statement.




Mr Slack asked what the Council would do to redress the balance of this detrimental decision.




Councillor Mazher Iqbal, the Cabinet Member for Business and Investment, made reference to film footage of the inside of the Old Town Hall, which was shown at the Planning and Highways Committee and a short clip of which was now shown at this meeting of the Cabinet as part of the response to Mr Slack’s questions and which showed the interior condition of the Old Town Hall.   He said that the Council was pleased that someone had come forward to restore the building. As the lead Cabinet Member for the Castlegate regeneration project, he said that one of the objectives had been to get that building back into use. 




The Council had pursued the previous owner and had taken legal action in order to gain access. It had also worked with the Victorian Society. There had been discussions in relation to compulsory purchase. However, the cost of acquiring and then refurbishing the building was prohibitive to the Council bringing the building back into use.




For some 20 years, the Old Town Hall had not been touched and the previous owners had left it to decay and whilst when the Council attempted to address issues through legal process and the owner had submitted a plan to say what they intended to do, such commitments were not fulfilled and there was no resolution.




He said that, as could be seen from the film footage, the building was not safe at present, including the roof and the floors. He had instructed that legal action be taken to address matters. The new developer then came in and worked with the Council and was quite clear that they wished to conserve what they could and to breathe new life into the building. 




He said that, in reference to the wording of Mr Slack’s question, it was not the case that the building was to be gutted to ensure profit and he believed that to be inaccurate and unfair. He referred to the work done by the developer, the architects and Council officers and to regular consultation with the Friends’ Group.




He said that there had been investment in both Castle House and in the kickstart project and a development brief would be produced, working in partnership on the Castlegate site. Other hitherto empty shops were now being occupied. In all, he said that it was a proud moment that the Old Town Hall building was to be brought back into use.




Councillor Bob Johnson, the Cabinet Member for Transport and Development, said that he would like to congratulate the developer for bringing forward the proposals and commented that the Old Town Hall was a significant heritage building. He said that he was supportive of repurposing and regenerating buildings where that was possible and to make them fit for purpose and for modern day use. He said that the building would have continued to deteriorate and there were examples of other buildings in private ownership having collapsed through neglect.




He commented that the Council did not have the funds necessary to step in and repurpose such buildings and said that he welcomed the regeneration in that area of the City.




In respect of the assertion by Mr Slack that this was a detrimental decision, he asked whether Mr Slack had any supplementary points to make, having watched the film footage of the building interior.




Mr Slack then commented that a key issue was that there would be little within the building which the public would be able to visit and which identified its past role in the City, with the courtrooms being converted into housing.  He said that the open entrance area in the foyer reception area was being converted and divided so one was not able to see the grandeur of its original construction.




Mr Slack said that, whilst he recognised the situation as regards the condition of the building now and previous issues which were unfortunate, he believed that it was also unfortunate that something was accepted that was less than ideal. He said that he would have liked to have seen at least a part of the building available for community use, to understand its historical role in Sheffield, including as a courthouse; and commented that more of the essential nature of the building internally was not saved. However, he said that he accepted that the final decision was with the Planning Committee but he hoped that the developer would come back for some post decision conversations where, potentially, they may be persuaded to do something along the lines of what he had suggested.




Councillor Bob Johnson responded that part of the proposal was for a publicly accessible area. As many as possible of the interior fittings, such as benches and pews, would be retained within the building.  Such items would also be offered for display in public and at other public buildings. Where the developer was able to preserve parts of the building, then he believed that would happen as it would also enhance what the developer was seeking to achieve and he hoped this would be welcomed.




Public Question Concerning Israel




Nigel Slack commented on the new UK Government and its approach with regards support for the government of Israel. He also made reference to the resolution passed at the September 2019 Council Meeting to recognise the Palestinian state. He asked how the Council would respond to any restrictive legislation in respect of organisations that supported boycotting, divesting or sanctioning the state of Israel's 'illegal' occupations of Palestinian land and their relationship with this Council.




Councillor Terry Fox, the Deputy Leader of the Council and Cabinet Member for Finance, Resources and Governance, responded that it was too early to give a full statement on this issue at this point in time.