Your overview of what happened at the latest meeting of Sunderland's full council

Debates about hate crime, climate change and a bid to ‘share the mayor’ dominated full council at Sunderland Civic Centre.

Thursday, 19th September 2019, 1:15 pm
Updated Friday, 20th September 2019, 12:30 pm
Sunderland Civic Centre.

In a packed agenda for the meeting on Wednesday, September 18, councillors clashed on several issues – including a proposed shake-up of meeting times.

As discussion stretched to more than five hours, proceedings were put on hold with councillors set to meet again this afternoon.

In the meantime, we provide you with a round-up of anything you might have missed.

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1) Brexit planning

Following a question from the Lib Dem group, council bosses revealed their contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit.

Deputy leader of Sunderland City Council, Michael Mordey, confirmed the council set up an ‘EU Exit Officer Group’ last year.

Based on analysis of a worst case scenario for Sunderland, risks include food shortages, medicine supply issues and traffic disruption at the Port of Sunderland.

To counter potential disruption, city leaders made several pledges including a ‘shopping service’ for vulnerable residents should food shortages arise.

Food banks will be supported with Brexit funding from central government with stocks replenished if they come under pressure.

And on shortages of epileptic and dementia medicines, the council are seeking advice on “appropriate escalation procedures” from the NHS.

Expected delays and congestion at the port will also be countered with a temporary lorry park which Nissan will operate and provide security for.

Coun Michael Mordey agreed to share the Brexit plan with all councillors going forward.

2) ‘Share the mayor’

A bid to change the way the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Sunderland are elected was rejected following a lengthy debate.

The motion, from city Conservatives, aimed to adopt a process used by some councils across the country, including York.

This could include a “point-based system” calculated by the number of councillors in a political group – with the mayor alternating between groups each year.

Conservative group leader, Coun Robert Oliver, while praising the role of the mayor, said it should be appointed based on the “strength of political groups”.

Liberal Democrats said they favoured the mayor being replaced with a “elected chairperson” while UKIP councillor Pam Mann said the role should be “merit-based.”

But Labour council leader, Graeme Miller, defended the current system and accused Conservatives of using the motion to “politicise the mayoral role.”

“I think it’s impossible to do what the notice of motion suggests because it can’t be done proportionally otherwise we’re chopping slices off people to try and fit a mayor out of something,” he said.

“68% of councillors are Labour and that is massively ahead of everybody else and I believe we must stay with that model.”

3) City Plan on hold

A blueprint for the future of Sunderland has been put on hold to allow for further scrutiny.

The City Plan (2019-2030) sets out a timeline of projects for Sunderland to create a “dynamic, healthy and vibrant city”.

This includes boosting business, attracting footfall and boosting Sunderland’s international profile.

As previously reported, the council’s Scrutiny Coordinating Committee recently raised concerns about changes to the ‘timeline’ in the plan.

Council leader, Coun Graeme Miller, said deferring the city plan debate until November was a “sensible move”.

4) ‘Community wealth’ scheme

The only Labour motion of the meeting sought backing for a scheme to “empower” communities in council decisions.

This included giving more powers and responsibilities to area committees and devolving some decisions and scrutiny to residents to allow them to improve their neighbourhoods.

Other ideas in the plan, outlined by Labour’s cabinet secretary Paul Stewart, included a review of how residents can shape council services and a “robust communication strategy.”

Coun Stewart said the motion showed Sunderland Labour delivering on a manifesto pledge to give residents a “real say on all that is important in their communities.”

“Indeed we should never forget that we’re here to serve these communities,” he told the meeting.

“It is only through working in ever-closer partnership with residents that we can ever ensure that this council’s priorities and community priorities are one in the same.

The motion was unanimously backed by all councillors and will now go to the chief executive to be worked up into formal proposals.

Conservative councillor, Robert Oliver, raised concerns about increased investment into communications creating a risk of “propaganda”.

“From the opposition’s view we would like to know what is not going so well and we feel that residents need to know that too,” he said.

While Lib Dem leader, Coun Niall Hodson, called for more clarity on specific services under the plan and noted the risk of the strategy creating a heavier workload for council officers.

5) Anti-semitism motion

A pledge to tackle all forms of hate crime in Sunderland was backed by councillors.

The Conservative group originally tabled a motion calling on council bosses to adopt an international definition of anti-semitism.

This followed a recent report which revealed a dramatic rise in hate crimes against the Jewish community in the UK.

At the meeting, Labour launched a bid to expand the motion to tackle hate crimes for all protected groups.

While the amended motion was voted through, the majority of the meeting saw political point scoring between the Conservative and Labour groups.

This included discussions of alleged anti-semitism in the national Labour party – which was recently investigated by BBC Panorama.

But Sunderland Labour hit back at the meeting, with deputy leader Michael Mordey saying the Conservative party had, so far, done “diddly squat” about Islamophobia.

6) Meeting time shake-up

Earlier this year, Washington and Sunderland West MP, Sharon Hodgson, criticised the start time of a meeting to decide a controversial planning application.

The Washington waste energy plant – dubbed a ‘monster incinerator’ by protestors – sparked thousands of objections and was rejected by the council’s Planning and Highways Committee.

At the time, the MP criticised the meeting for starting at 4.30pm which, she claimed, made it difficult for working people to attend.

At full council, Sunderland Conservatives asked for support to change the Planning and Highways Committee start time to 6pm permanently.

Labour bosses said the waste plant meeting met “exceptional circumstances” due to the amount of public interest with the changes aiming to accommodate all speakers.

At the meeting, Lib Dem also launched a bid expand all public council meetings to a 6pm start time – a move rejected by Labour.

Council leader, Graeme Miller, this change would“paralyse” council business.

Following discussion, the original motion and amendment were voted down.

7) Climate crisis pledge

Sunderland’s first Green Party councillor, Dom Armstrong, made his first speech in the chamber on the dangers of the climate crisis.

This followed a ‘climate emergency’ agreed earlier this year which set a council target of carbon-neutral by 2030.

The new motion asked for regular updates and progress against this target in future.

Coun Dom Armstrong said “coordinated and continuous action” was needed to tackle the issue.

“Business as usual just isn’t working anymore, if the council is seeing this as an emergency it must act as it would in any other emergency,” he said.

Labour bosses also outlined their commitment to reducing carbon emissions – including recording the “carbon cost” of all of council decisions.

Deputy Council Leader, Coun Michael Mordey, said the new carbon plan up to 2030 will go out to public consultation this Autumn.

He added the council is working towards developing business cases for energy-saving projects and working with other authorities in the region.

Council leader, Graeme Miller, said that a short-term fix to reduce carbon emissions involved moving council business from the current civic centre to the planned city hall by Keel Square.

Travel improvements including the Sunderland Strategic Transport Corridor and any Metro extension to Washington, Coun Miller explained, would also help reduce emissions in the long-term.

The motion was backed unanimously by councillors.

8) School uniform grants debate cut short

A Lib Dem motion calling for financial grants to support low income families to buy school uniforms was cut short last night.

The proposal called for city leaders to adopt a grant scheme ahead of the 2020/21 school year to support parents with uniform costs.

Other asks included pressuring schools to simplify uniforms, ditch high cost items and to relax rules around resale or handing uniforms onto siblings.

Coun Stephen O’Brien said the motion was “above party politics and about parents struggling to clothe their own children.”

During the debate, Labour councillors noted underlying problems of austerity and Universal Credit creating “working poor.”

However, the discussion was cut short following a move by council leader, Graeme Miller, who moved to adjourn the meeting due to the amount of outstanding business.

He added: “If this meeting had started at 6pm like my opposition colleagues would like, we would now be heading towards a post midnight finish as it would already be past 11pm.”

The motion was carried by majority vote with the meeting restarting at 2pm today.