Newham's governance referendum: the case for both options

poling station sign

Voters in Newham will decide how the borough is governed in a referendum held on May 6. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The way Newham is governed is being decided in a public vote held on May 6.

There are two options on the ballot paper. The first is to keep the current model where a mayor is directly elected by voters.

That mayor then appoints cabinet chiefs who oversee different areas of the council, such as transport, housing and children's services.

A second option is a committee system where all council members select fellow councillors to sit on groups covering service areas. They also choose a leader.

Mayor of Newham, Rokhsana Fiaz. Picture: R. Fiaz

Rokhsana Fiaz is encouraging residents to vote on May 6 - Credit: Newham Council

The referendum was a manifesto pledge made by current mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, in her 2018 election campaign.

Newham adopted the directly elected mayor model in 2002, and is one of four of London's 32 councils using it.


You may also want to watch:


All but 15 of England's 314 local councils are run by a leader elected by fellow councillors.

Stoke-on-Trent and Hartlepool adopted the mayoral model, but then abolished it. However, people in Middlesbrough and North Tyneside voted to keep it.

Most Read

Neighbouring Tower Hamlets is holding a referendum on its governance on the same date.

Whichever option Newham voters choose will come into effect in May 2022.

East Ham Town Hall.

Voters will decide in a referendum held on the same day as the London mayoral and London Assembly elections. A by-election in East Ham Central is also being held on the same date - May 6. - Credit: Ken Mears

Josephine Grahl chairs Newham Voting for Change, which is for the committee system.

She said concentrating power in the hands of one person as mayor is bad for democracy and all elected councillors would be sovereign under a committee system.

"It would be a big step forward for Newham," she said.

She explained decisions are currently made by the mayor and cabinet chiefs and debated "behind closed doors" by Labour - which holds all 60 council seats - before councillors are whipped to toe the party line in public votes.

But under the committee model, ideas would be discussed in public with policy proposals then voted on by all councillors. Parties would only then decide whether to back plans, she added.

"Discussion would be more transparent," she said.

On whether getting rid of the mayor model was good or bad for democracy, Ms Grahl said: "You're sharing the power.

"Giving councillors more power is a way to really use their skills, abilities and knowledge to the full."

Jamie Ratcliff, a resident who worked for Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan at City Hall, denied the committee model made decision-making more open.

He predicted Labour would still dominate the council in future, with councillors owing their positions to those in the party who approved their candidacy, meaning they might not feel accountable to residents.

"Why would enabling these councillors to decide the leader beckon in an era of transparency and effective democracy?

"I fear it would instead lead to turmoil, greater behind-the-scenes decision-making and potentially a new leader every year.

"In reality, it is the Labour Party and not Newham's electorate who choose who the mayor is. That said, I think the [mayoral] profile's greater position means there is greater transparency in that decision," Mr Ratcliff said.

Mehmood Mirza is a lead coordinator at Restore Democracy Newham, which backs the committee model.

"It's a democratic model which will empower councillors," he said.

He added the leader would not be as powerful as a mayor and can be replaced in a no-confidence motion.

Ex-councillor Conor McAuley worked under both models. He is part of the Right to Vote campaign which backs the mayoral model.

On its merits, Mr McAuley said: "There is greater clarity as to who is in charge and the public get to vote for a named person."

He explained that when the committee model operated in Newham, there were three leaders in 1995 alone as the Labour Party split into factions.

"The authority of the mayor is simple. You know who you are voting for. If the mayor does not deliver, you can vote them out.

"Under the committee system, you have no idea who will be leader," he said.

Ms Grahl denied the model would lead to factions or patronage.

Mr McAuley said the idea a mayor has all the power is "nonsense", adding Newham's watchdog overview and scrutiny committee exists to hold the mayor to account.

Ed Hammond, deputy chief executive at the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny, said much depends on how the people elected behave rather than which model is adopted.

"So much more of this is about behaviour and people's values. Just changing the governance of a council will not automatically lead to the changes people want," he warned.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter