Eight things you need to know from the last full meeting of Sunderland City Council
Debates over housing and the future of city centre leisure facilities dominated the latest meeting of Sunderland City Council.
In a meeting stretching to nearly five hours, rival councillors clashed with the ruling Labour group on several issues – including the start time of the meeting itself.
Even the decision to award Sunderland-born football hero Jordan Henderson the Freedom of the City came under fire.
Despite this, hands were stretched across political divides on suicide prevention and tributes to a Sunderland soldier killed in the Troubles.
Here’s a round-up of anything you might have missed.
Going green to tackle climate crisis
In March, the council declared a ‘climate emergency’ in response to a national push to reduce carbon emissions.
This included a plan to become ‘carbon-neutral’ by 2030 – ahead of the government target of 2050.
During questions, several members of the public asked how the council would respond to the climate change issue.
Deputy council leader, Coun Michael Mordey, stressed that “business as usual won’t achieve our carbon-neutral ambition”.
He said the opening of the UK’s first electric vehicle fast charging station in Sunderland showed the city as a “leader in the fight against road emissions.”
And he added that the council would call on government to provide “necessary powers and resources to make local action on climate change easier.”
Council bosses are currently developing a refreshed carbon plan which will be published for public consultation in the autumn.
Other plans include a Carbon Management Partnership to unite partners and schools to help shape the carbon plan going forward.
Freedom of the City for Jordan Henderson
In recent weeks, it was confirmed Sunderland-born football hero, Jordan Henderson, had been nominated for the Freedom of the City.
The council has a tradition of awarding the gong to citizens who have made significant contributions to the wellbeing and community spirit of Sunderland.
While Jordan has said he is “honoured” to be nominated he may not accept the accolade until later in his career.
At the meeting, city Conservatives asked if the footballer had been informed about the nomination before it was made public.
Group leader, Robert Oliver, said: “It doesn’t take much to read between the lines that this has not exactly gone according to plan.”
But Labour group leader, Graeme Miller, hit back saying the decision was made by the Henderson family.
“Sometimes trying to read between the lines leaves you falling between them,” he said.
“Jordan Henderson was absolutely contacted and the initial conversations were that he would accept it, that’s why we brought it forward.
“Circumstances have changed, he has now agreed to be an ambassador and we will give that honorary freedom in due course.”
Spice Girls concert success
Labour also took the opportunity to shout about the success of the recent Spice Girls concert at the Stadium of Light.
The 20th gig at the venue attracted around 50,000 visitors to Sunderland and is expected to have had an economic benefit of £4million.
The swell of fans is expected to have boosted both local businesses and the taxi trade, with visitors from the North East, Ireland, Wales, Canada and even Brazil.
In recent months, opposition councillors had criticised the £50,000 council contribution to the concert.
But council leader Graeme Miller said concerts at the stadium were value for money – with a return of £80 pounds into the local economy for every pound of council investment.
“The financial benefits to the city’s local business community and broader economy can’t be questioned now,” he said.
“The return on the brand and image of Sunderland as a dynamic, vibrant city geared up to be a event destination for visitors globally, priceless.”
Labour bosses and rival councillors clashed as ambitious new housing plans for the city were revealed.
A motion, launched by cabinet member for Housing and Regeneration, Coun Rebecca Atkinson, outlined key pledges to tackle housing issues in the city.
This included building more affordable and social homes and bringing thousands of empty properties back into use.
Other plans included support for armed forces veterans, rough sleepers and victims of domestic violence.
However, Conservatives claimed the motion was “aspirational” and did not outline actions needed to tackle the issues.
Coun James Doyle added while the motion was positive, it suffered from “mediocre drafting and a lack of clear purpose.”
Lib Dems questioned how many social homes had been built since the council transferred its housing stock to Gentoo.
While Sunderland’s sole Green Party councillor, Coun Dom Armstrong, asked whether bringing empty homes into use would reduce reliance on green belt developments.
Following debate, a bid to amend the motion calling for a clear action plan was shot down by the Labour majority.
Labour blamed government policies, including ‘right-to-buy’ for the loss of council housing stock.
While council leader Graeme Miller praised Gentoo’s record and accused the opposition of “talking the city down.”
He added the Labour group were trying to “take ownership of housing issues” due to lack of support from government.
“We’re only asking for you to give us the benefit of the doubt and go with us on it and you just try and find a reason for saying no,” he said.
“This Labour group will continue to try and do what’s right for the residents of this city.”
Following debate, councillors unanimously backed the Labour motion.
Meeting time shake-up
At Sunderland’s City Council’s last annual meeting, council bosses agreed to shift full council meetings from from 6pm to 4pm.
Labour bosses said the move would be more “family-friendly” and tackle lengthy meetings in the council chamber.
However, city Conservatives said the new times would make it difficult for some working councillors to carry out their duties.
They also criticised council bosses for lack of consultation over the move, while Lib Dems said a 6pm start time could encourage more members of the public to attend.
Following debate, a Conservative bid to change the times back to 6pm was rejected by Labour bosses.
The meeting heard several times were considered by Labour in comparison with other local authorities.
Messages of hope on city bridges
Emotional speeches dominated the debate in a motion aiming to save lives in Sunderland.
In recent months, Sunderland teen Paige Hunter was recognised for her work helping people in crisis.
This included putting handwritten notes on the Wearmouth Bridge in a bid to reach out to those in despair.
A Conservative motion to make the ‘messages of hope’ permanent won cross-party backing in the chamber.
However, Labour councillors stressed that the signs should be designed in partnership with experts and health partners.
Coun Dominic McDonough said Sunderland City Council would be the first local authority to install permanent messages.
“Through working with the community,” he added, “we can ensure that the signs are personal and do not lose their impact.”
Tributes to soldier killed in ‘The Troubles’
Another Conservative motion aimed to pay tribute to the bravery of a soldier from Sunderland who was killed during the Troubles.
More than 40 years ago, Captain Robert Nairac was murdered at the hands of the IRA.
The soldier, who lived in Sunderland for 20 years, was kidnapped while serving in military intelligence.
He is now one of only three people to ‘disappear’ during Ulster’s bloody Troubles whose remains have still to be found.
Councillors agreed to back national tributes and the prospect of any local memorial in future.
Conservative group leader, Coun Robert Oliver, launching the motion, gave a snapshot of the captain’s life and service.
A citation on the soldier’s George Cross also revealed he refused to give up information to his captors, despite attempts to “break his will.”
Council Oliver added: “One of his fellow soldiers said after his death, he was a brave man, he was an officer and he led by example.
“He did not expect his men to do anything he would not do, he volunteered for Northern Ireland because he loved Ireland and he thought he could make a difference.”
Calls for leisure facilities in city centre
Leisure has always been a divisive topic in Sunderland due to the loss of key facilities in recent years.
This includes the Crowtree Leisure Centre which was demolished in 2013 after closing its doors for good two years earlier.
At the meeting, Lib Dems made fresh calls to “explore the feasibility” of a new public leisure facility in the city centre.
And group leader, Coun Niall Hodson, said this aimed to tackle the legacy left by the closure of Crowtree.
He described the site, by Keel Square, as a “massive damp, derelict field in the heart of the city centre with no prospect of revival.”
He added the amount of free accessible public space in the city centre was “pitifully small” and that plans should be brought forward.
Conservatives added answers could lie in a “landmark leisure facility” on the seafront to boost the economy.
But Labour hit back, pushing through an amendment which noted their record in the city.
They disputed that customers who used the Crowtree now have to travel outside the area for sporting and leisure activities – listing investment in new football pitches and facilities in outlying areas.
Ongoing city centre plans include an a 2,500-plus capacity auditorium near the Empire Theatre, the regeneration of the Minster Quarter and a ‘local studies library’ at the Elephant Tea Rooms.
Council bosses added the Crowtree Leisure Centre closure was sparked by rising maintenance costs and falling footfall – with any new plans needing to explore”what best fits within the city template.”
Council leader, Coun Graeme Miller, also claimed the opposition were “stealing the Labour group’s clothes on an issue.”
He said the the council had been driving forward change – “only (to be) held back by failures in the private sector and reluctance from central government to invest more.”
He added: “At heart it’s a good motion because it is right to suggest such a thing, but you have to be fair to the work that has already been done by this group.”
The amended motion calls for the chief executive to update the council on “ongoing plans to develop a new public leisure facility in the city centre”.
Lib Dems also called for “concrete plans to come forward sooner rather than later” for consultation.