Agenda item

Public Questions and Petitions

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


(NOTE: There is a time limit of up to 30 minutes for the above item of business. In accordance with the arrangements published on the Council’s website, questions/petitions at the meeting are required to be submitted in writing, to, by 9.00 a.m. on Monday 11 December 2023).



Russell Johnson attended to present the following questions that he had submitted:


The Plaque: At May FC and June S&RPC, as part of the Lowcock response, SCC agreed to the installation of a plaque in the Town Hall entrance which would be, in the words of the Officer who authored the Report: ‘… in recognition of those who fought for our environmental heritage and were vindicated, and to serve as a reminder to all elected members that this failure of leadership will never happen again,’ This, the Committee Report stated, is expected by March 2024


(a) Please would Cllr Hunt provide today a progress report of the procurement, costings, consultations on wording and expected installation date for the promised plaque, and account for any anticipated failure to meet the time scale.

(b) Please would the Leader share with interested members of the public any plans or preparations for the unveiling ceremony of the Plaque, including consulting citizens and Elected Members on this matter?



Answer: We are on schedule to unveil the plaque on the 6th March. The detail of the unveiling ceremony is still to be confirmed and we will make the public aware of the details 


We have a design completed by our Capital Delivery Service which we have shared for informal feedback with key stakeholders, including Sheffield Street Tree Partnership, Sheffield Tree Action Groups and Waste and Street Scene Policy Committee members. Further work is now underway with Sheffield Tree Action Groups to develop the plaque design, which will be taken through a public consultation process prior to sign off, ready for manufacture and installation by 6th March 2024. We are aiming for completion of the design in early January to then start public consultation, ready to manufacture in February. Until the designs have been agreed we are unable to provide the actual cost however we will be within the original budget agreed by S&R Committee. Other than officer time no costs have been incurred so far.



The Lowcock Actions: At the Strategy and Resources Policy Committee on 19 June of this year, the Council agreed that: ‘the Committee should agree a budget of up to £50,000 to support the work set out above.’ (the ‘suite of actions’).


Please would the Leader, without of course revealing any names, and in the interests of transparency in accounting for public monies, put on record the breakdown of expenditures from that allocation to date? Does the Leader anticipate requesting authority for an additional amount, as previously suggested may be required?



Answer: The report considered by Strategy and Resources Committee in June 2023 made provision for a sum of up to £50,000 to be used specifically to support actions arising from the apology process and for the costs of the installation of the Town Hall plaque.  That report noted that the costs associated with the reimbursement of those who had paid their financial court orders was accounted for within the costs that had previously been set aside for the running of the inquiry and therefore did not need to be found from the £50,000 allocated by the committee in June.


To date, the apology process itself has incurred no costs other than officer time, and the work on the plaque has not yet reached a point where costs are due.  As described in the answer to  question 1, the plaque is due to be manufactured and installed during the first part of 2024 (following consultation) and therefore costs will fall due at that point.  We will make public a summary of these costs once known. There will be some external spend on using independent investigators resulting from complaints made arising from the issues raised in the Inquiry Report.  When finalised those costs will be made public.



The Personal Apologies - There are a number of people who have not received the promised apologies as a result of the wrong actions of Members and Officers during the scandalous destruction of 5000 street trees as described by Sir Mark Lowcock.


(a) Is this because of a reluctance to use contact emails already held for the likely recipients?

(b) If so, has SCC asked their chosen ‘representative’ organisation of Tree Defenders (‘STAG’) to contact their members seeking requests for apologies and permission to use email addresses? If not, why not?

(c) Is Cllr Hunt and the Senior Officer cadre aware that many people in the City are understandably sceptical of the Council’s new ‘core value’ - ‘openness and honesty are important to us’, suspecting that this, and perhaps the two other ‘values’ as well, are little more than window-dressing?

(d) Do they recognise that such views are amplified by, for example, the apparent absence of accountability associated with the recent ‘Containergate’ debacle, the inexplicable ‘Rose Garden Café’ saga and continuing extraordinary delays in FOIR and complaints handling?



Answer to a and b: Strategy and Resources Committee agreed at their 19 June meeting as part of their consideration of the Lowcock report that the apology process would work on the basis of “self-identification”. 


This means that anyone who wished to receive an apology, who wasn’t included in one of the categories specified in the Lowcock report, would be asked to come forward to request an apology rather than the Council coming to its own judgement about whether or not an apology would be welcomed. This was done for both the practical reason that the Council does not hold contact details for everyone who may wish an apology and because self-identification also mitigates the risk of contacting people who do not wish to hear from the Council and would find the contact upsetting or inappropriate. The process followed was set out in detail at Appendix C of the paper considered by the committee in June.


Answer to c: The Council’s values were developed neither by Elected Members nor by senior officers.  They were developed by staff from right across the council and reflect the behaviours and ways of working that we expect from everyone in the organisation. Our values are fundamental to the sort of organisation we want to be for the future.  We are proud of them, have taken steps to embed them with staff right across SCC, and we are already beginning to see changes in the way in which we work – for example, our work on developing the city goals has been done in partnership with local people and communities, which is fundamentally different to how we might have conducted such a piece of work in the past. In addition, in this meeting we are to consider the draft Council Plan called Together we get things Done, one of the Council’s values. As we acknowledge in today’s report, that culture change - of which the values are one part - will take time to embed, but it is a process that we have started and which we are committed to.  The alternative to having a value explicitly focused around openness and honesty would be not to have one and that would, in our view, have sent entirely the wrong signal about the sort of organisation that we wish to be and that the people of Sheffield expect us to be.


Answer to d: No.  For each of the issues named in the question, we have sought to ensure that as much information as possible is made available publicly and that stakeholders and the general public are aware of the progress that is being made, in line with our values.  Where things haven't gone as anticipated we have re-planned, taken action to mitigate issues and been open and honest about challenges. It is vitally important that, as stewards of public money, we are accountable when mistakes are made.  The recent Audit and Standards report on the containers issue demonstrates that. We are also unafraid to open ourselves up to external scrutiny.  Over the summer, in line with the recommendations from the Lowcock report, we asked the Information Commissioner’s Office to provide a consensual audit of our FOI processes and approach.  That audit gave reasonable assurance about those processes.  But it made some recommendations, two of which were urgent, and we are making sure that we action those. We know that timescales for responding to FOIs are too long and that was confirmed by the ICO.  The reasons for that are complex but work is under way to improve our approach.



At the ECM on 10 May 2023, a Motion was passed that included the following:


12. [this Council] believes that for individuals who were council Cabinet members in the civic years 2015/16 to 2017/18, resignation from public office would be an appropriate indication of acceptance of responsibility for the harms caused.

(a) Is the Council satisfied that everything possible has been done to comply with that resolution?

(b) Are there any further attempts being planned or considered to give that Resolution, and the Leader’s Party apparatus, some reality and credibility?



Answer: There is nothing that the council can do to compel Members to resign. 


Elected Members can be disqualified from being a councillor but that is for a defined set of criteria set out in law (for example a criminal conviction leading to a prison sentence of at least 3 months, failure to attend any meetings of the authority for 6 months or taking up employment with the authority).  Neither the Monitoring Officer nor the Council as a body has the power to compel an Elected Member to resign their seat. It is also not a binding decision the Council can make and those are not matters it could lawfully decide as enforceable.  The motion that was passed is an expression of opinion. That is why the wording states this Council believes.



Russell Johnson attended to present the following question that had been submitted by Justin Buxton: At the Strategy and Resources Committee on the 19 June 2023 the Council accepted in full the recommendations of a report by the Chief Executive that included at para 18 a statement that the Council would apologise to the Courts.


On the 27th September Paul Brooke submitted a Freedom of Information request asking the council to confirm whether an apology to the courts had been made by The Council.  On the 30th October the Council apologised that they had missed the deadline for providing this requested information. Paul Brooke then chased this now overdue Information request on the 13th November. No response was received.


On the 1st December Paul Brooke chased this now very overdue Freedom of Information request yet again. This time the council deigned to respond; stating "Thank you for your email of 1 December 2023 giving us a deadline of 6 December 2023. Please grant us another 24 hours to make a reply to you." SCC failed to respond within 24hrs as promised. Have the Council apologised to court yet and will the apology to court be made public without redaction? If not why not?"



Answer: The apology to the court has not yet been sent. We need to make sure that the apology properly reflects the findings in the report of Sir Mark Lowcock. The Inquiry was independent and received its own legal advice on the matters it has said the Council should apologise for. The Council was not a party to that advice so has had to consider the legal points raised. The Council also wanted to be sure itself, through examining the cases, that it concurs with the Inquiry finding that the misleading impression the court had from a document did not make a difference to the outcomes in the hearings. This has taken longer to determine than hoped. I have been assured that the apology will be sent to the court before the end of this month. This will be made public and I have asked officers to notify you when this takes place.



The Leader reported that Ruth Hubbard had requested in respect of the Cost of Living Strategy Item, for clarity and information, please could you talk through each of the items listed in Table A at para. 1.14 as to what they are and how/why they arise in these kinds of amounts. 



It was stated that the response involves a lot of complex information and that a written response would be provided.



Calvin Payne attended to present the following questions that he had submitted: I would like to clarify the content of Councillor Hunt's response to Councillor Johnson's written members question last week. The reply references complaints, possibly in regard to the 'undertakers', and the subsequent delay to apologies. Please be clear as to which apologies are to be delayed due to these long running complaints and why.   



Answer: The apologies which have been delayed are the apologies to those who provided undertakings. The apologies are delayed for all of this group, whether individuals within the group have made a complaint or not. This is because the subject matter of the complaint is common across these individuals and the outcome of the complaint may determine the final content of the apology beyond matters explicitly dealt with in the Inquiry report. You will appreciate that I cannot go into the specific details of the complaint here today. 



On June 19th 2023 the Leader and Chief Executive made a number of pledges in a report to this committee. In relation to the people who were subject to committal proceedings they said they would, " with them to do everything possible to mitigate any ongoing impact. This could include...providing letters of explanation should they need to explain the reasons for suspended prison sentences when job seeking...". None of the proposed mitigation actions have been carried out and there are real life consequences as a result. It should have been a matter of urgency to put in motion those mitigation actions, however the council has merely delayed and delayed with no explanation, doing further damage to the lives of those already affected by their 'misguided' and 'mistaken' court proceedings. Will the Leader acknowledge, and apologise for, the failure to so far carry out the promised mitigation process?



Answer: Officers have informed me that so far you are the only person who has requested such assistance.  I know that in discussions, officers have said that they can provide a general letter but have also said that if any specific occasion arises, they would be happy to provide a specific letter setting out the context of the hearings. They have also said that they would be happy to speak to a prospective employer or contractor, should this be requested. While I am informed that you have not received the general letter yet, I feel sure that if you had any specific need of assistance to date, that this assistance would have been provided.  I have been assured that you will receive the general letter very soon and before the end of January at the very latest. We have not assumed that everyone who was subject to court action wants such assistance.  If anyone does then they can get in touch.