Mayor welcomes report into ‘radical’ overhaul of Newham’s democratic process

Mayor of Newham Rokhsana Fiaz has responded to the independent report. Picture: Andrew Baker

Mayor of Newham Rokhsana Fiaz has responded to the independent report. Picture: Andrew Baker - Credit: Andrew Baker

The mayor of Newham has welcomed the publication of a report into a “radical” overhaul of democracy in the borough.

But Rokhsana Fiaz said that she wanted to have “further conversations with our residents” before committing to implementing any of the reforms suggested by an independent democracy commission.

A two-term mayoral limit and England’s first permanent citizens’ assembly are among the changes that could be made in the borough.

The suggestions, revealed on Monday, July 6 also include an increase in particpatory budgeting - allowing people to have a say on how money is spent in their area - and a pilot scheme of an ‘urban parish council’ in one part of the borough.

The commission on democracy and civic participation heard from hundreds of residents, community groups, councillors, and national experts between November and February.

These discussions have also led to suggestions for an office for data, discovery and democracy, which would provide expertise on the democratic use of data and digital tools, as well as a new framework for area-based decision-making.

Ms Fiaz reiterated her desire to hold a referendum on whether to keep or scrap the directly elected mayor model, despite the commission advocating for it to be continued.

Most Read

The report described it as a “democratic and effective” way to run the borough that also provides direct accountability and ensures visible democratic leadership.

“On the governance model we remain absolutely committed to a referendum,” Ms Fiaz said. “The council will bring forward a timetable option as the pandemic crisis eases.

“In addition, there will need to be a decision on the alternative option presented to the people in that referendum.”

But she was more optimistic about other aspects of the commission’s report, especially surrounding participatory democracy.

“There are a number of ideas that are similar to work we have already started,” Ms Fiaz said.

“Some of the proposals are really helpful and ones we can take forward straight away, or in the short and medium term. Others need further consideration and much more work to take them forward.

“I was really pleased to hear the wide-ranging recommendations made and the context in which they were being considered.”

The mayor highlighted the idea of using data and digital as a way to engage more people as being “very exciting”, as well as increasing engagement with young people.

“I’m also interested in the more effective and scaled-up use of skills, something that obvously warrants some further conversation and consideration by both councillors and residents.”

She added: “This was an independent commission and as such it can never be expected to be adopted wholesale. The engagement and consultation with residents that formed part of the commission’s work will need to be considered further to ensure that they reach and reflect the diversity of all of Newham’s communities.

“We look forward to hearing feedback on the report as it gets digested over the coming weeks.”

The report - which stretches to 124 pages - explores the six key lines of enquiry the commission was asked to address.

It outlines the idea of increasing spending through participatory budgeting for neighbourhoods from £25,000 to a minimum of 20 per cent of the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) resources, and suggests setting up a permanent citizens’ assembly, with members selected like a jury and meeting twice a year to respond to local issues.

Prof Pearce said: “The reforms that we propose are innovative, they are new. We draw on examples from other parts of the world but putting them together in a way that would be new and distinctive for Newham.

“If the mayor and the cabinet and the council wish to go forward with these, some of them do not require any approval by the secretary of state.

“It would be my hope that in the future the sorts of recommendations that we do make could be given a statutory backing.”

Fahmida Rahman, one of the members of the commission, described it as “radical in all the right ways”.

“The report and the recommendations that have come out of it are excellent,” she said.

“Across the country and across the world potentially, people who are from low income backgrounds and young people are less likely to vote and those two groups are hugely over-represented in Newham.

“So placing Newham in a place where voter turn out is already lkely to be quite low and political engagement is likely to be quite low, that’s left us with a bit of a unique challenge in terms of raising participation and tackling political inequality.”