Labour Newham mayor hopeful Rokhsana Fiaz pledges referendum on mayoral system

by Dave Hill

The mayoral system in Newham could be brought to an end under proposals to be announced by local councillor Rohksana Fiaz as she launches her campaign to replace long-serving incumbent Sir Robin Wales as Labour’s candidate for May’s mayoral election.

Fiaz, who was shortlisted yesterday as the sole challenger to Sir Robin in a forthcoming candidate selection contest, pledges in the draft of a campaign leaflet, seen by On London, to “hold a referendum on having a directly elected Mayor by 2021”.

The pledge is the centrepiece of a wider commitment by Fiaz to changing the way Newham Council works in order build what the leaflet describes as “a culture of trust and openness that involves our residents in our decision making”.

Resident involvement in council decisions was a central theme of a wide-ranging interview Fiaz gave On London on Friday, her first since declaring her interest in running for mayor last month.

She said then that that the directly elected mayor system “may not necessarily be the best model” and that she would be “looking at reviewing it with a commitment on a referendum” and “looking at setting up a democracy, citizenship and participation commission” with a view to increasing council accountability.

Critics of Sir Robin, who has been Mayor of Newham since the position was established in 2002 and had led the council under the previous system since 1995, contend that he has accrued too much power to himself, leading to insufficient scrutiny and resulting poor decisions. Executive mayoral systems can be adopted or rejected according to the outcome of local referendums on the issue.

The Fiaz draft leaflet also promises to “build 1,000 new council-owned homes to be let at social rent levels by 2022” and to “ensure 50% of developer built homes are let at social rent levels and owned by the council”.

Further pledges include opposing the creation of more academy schools in Newham, doubling the number of “youth hubs” as part of wider youth safety and development programme and making the borough “a beacon of community wealth building”, with localised economic policies understood to be in line with the so-called “Preston Model” admired by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Fiaz’s policy proposals are likely to appeal to local Momentum activists and other, newer Labour members in Newham attracted to the party by Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. The candidate selection will be decided by party members only on a one-member, one-vote basis in a process that will run from 1-16 March. Sir Robin appears to already be wooing that section of the Newham “selectorate”, arguing that policies he has already introduced on housing delivery, homelessness, employment and free school meals are in line with Corbyn’s stated priorities.

Asked if she believed it was desirable or even possible to slow the pace of gentrification in her borough, Fiaz replied that “change is not a bad thing” and that incomers can help “in terms of injecting new perspectives” but that “the challenge is how you manage that migration in so that long standing residents don’t feel they’re being left behind”.

Fiaz was critical of Newham’s job brokerage Workplace, which aims to place local people with local employers, saying that while it should be valued “it does very little in terms of young people” and that had “questions around the nature of the jobs Workplace produces in terms of their sustainability”.

Without naming Sir Robin, Fiaz told On London she believes that “being in a position for a very lengthy period of time can lend itself to an ossified, insular way of thinking and making decisions.” Denying that her four years as a councillor for Custom House ward in the south of the borough was insufficient experience for the mayoral task, she pointed to a range of jobs she has done with leadership responsibilities, including in media, public affairs and most particularly the field of engagement with minority groups and dealing with the challenges raised by identity politics.

Fiaz, 47, is from a Muslim background and described by friends as socially liberal. She was awarded an OBE in 2009 for her work on race, faith and identity.

For Fiaz to deliver her 50% social housing promise she would have to bring about a higher percentage of such homes than has recently been secured in any of London’s 32 boroughs. The most recent published figures, covering the three years to 2015/16, show that the highest rate of delivery of “affordable” homes of every kind in the capital, including “intermediate” shared ownership and “affordable rent” as well as traditional social rent, was 47%, in Waltham Forest. Newham’s overall affordable rate was 28%, representing 1,494 affordable homes of all types during the period, the third highest in London after Tower Hamlets and Greenwich.

The full On London interview with Rokhsana Fiaz is here.

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