Independent report fuels Newham's drive to become a beacon of participatory democracy

Mayor of Newham Rokhsana Fiaz has today (6 July) welcomed the publication of an independent report.

Mayor of Newham Rokhsana Fiaz has today (6 July) welcomed the publication of an independent report that supports her drive to radically rebalance the power relationship between councils and citizens, with residents placed firmly at the heart of decision making.

Two years ago Mayor Fiaz was elected on a platform to transform Newham, pledging to change the culture, structure and governance of the Council. Key to this was instilling a new culture of openness and accountability, with people at the heart of everything the Council does. The Mayor’s administration established the Democracy and Civic Participation Commission last year tasking it with providing independent expert advice on increasing resident participation and engagement, and looking at the Council’s future governance.

Mayor Fiaz said: “For too long the way this Council worked had damaged residents’ trust in the way they were governed, in its politicians and in the way decisions were made about services and the future of the borough. My manifesto commitment was a bold vision for Newham to become a beacon of participatory democracy.

“The global movement for greater democratic engagement has blossomed in recent years. In large part, this has been a response to complex challenges facing democracies and the impact that this is having on people and communities around the world. Social justice, racial injustice, economic instability, climate change, nationalism on the rise; and the threat posed by corrosive forces operating in the dark web or through fake social media accounts that is putting the very essence of democracy at risk.”

The Commission was tasked with examining both the Council’s current Directly Elected Mayor system of governance - introduced to Newham in 2002 - and the alternative types that exist in English local government. It also explored ways in which local residents could be more engaged and involved in local-decision making and the Council’s work.

Professor Nick Pearce, Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bath, chaired the Commission, and its members included leading academics, campaigners and democracy advocates. The Commission’s recommendations on the proposed best system of governance for Newham’s future have been published today.

The Commission’s report includes ten core recommendations, which will now be considered in detail by the Mayor, Cabinet colleagues and the Council.

Included in them were recommendations for a two-term limit for the directly elected mayor, and a permanent citizens’ assembly, meeting at least twice a year, to respond to and act on important, emerging local issues – the first of its kind in England.

Mayor Fiaz said: “We welcome the Commission’s independent report and are grateful to Professor Nick Pearce, and members of the Commission for their work. Publication of the Commission’s report marks an important milestone in delivery of my manifesto commitments and on Newham’s transformation journey.

“Genuine resident participation and engagement will be central to how we take this forward and transform how we work. Participation and engagement requires effort and the building of community skills and capacity, and we know that we still have much to do to overcome a long legacy of low trust and confidence in the Council.

“But we know from the participation, engagement and co-production work that we have already done, that this pays off when people feel they are genuinely able to influence the things that matter to them, ensuring decisions better reflect the needs of residents and communities. There are a number of ideas and proposals in the Commission’s report that are similar to work we have already started – in particular around participatory practices, co-production, and deliberative processes such as Citizen’s Assemblies and forums. Some of the proposals around these areas are very helpful and ones which we can take forward straight away, or in the short and medium term. Others need further consideration, interrogation and much more work and development in order to consider taking them forward, or shaping them for the Newham landscape.”

The Mayor has reaffirmed her manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on the Council’s future model of governance and having a Directly Elected Mayor. The Council will bring forward timetabling options as well as the need to consider an alternative option to be presented to residents in that referendum.

The Commission makes a number of detailed recommendations which the Council will carefully consider. The Commission has not costed its recommendations or carried out impact assessments, and any decisions will have to be considered in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic has had a significant impact on the resources available to the Council, which is still being assessed. A detailed action plan on taking forward the Council’s participatory democracy agenda will be published in the autumn.

In preparing its findings, the Commission consulted residents, councillors, and wider academics. It was supported by the Centre for Public Scrutiny, a charity with expertise on local authority governance, and The Democratic Society, a non-profit organisation working for greater participation and dialogue in democracy. Views of residents were gathered in face-to-face engagement sessions in 23 locations, speaking to 350 people who live in or have links to the borough. Events were held at English as a Second Language classes, a youth hub, a Community Forum meeting, and in public spaces including a Tube station and a supermarket. An online platform also allowed people to provide comments to the Commission.

Mayor Fiaz said: “Taking forward our participatory democracy agenda will require engagement and co-production with residents, and is not something that can be achieved overnight. We look forward to hearing residents’ and councillors’ feedback on the report as it gets digested across the borough in the coming weeks. And we too would like to have further conversations with our residents, including our young people, to understand what they think about the recommendations that have been made, as we carve a path towards bringing participatory democracy to life in Newham. But I’m determined that Newham should shine a light for what a new kind of relationship between council and citizen can look like.”

Published: 06 Jul 2020