Q&A: Newham Labour mayoral hopeful Rokhsana Fiaz on gentrification, community involvement and Sir Robin Wales

by Dave Hill

Rokhsana Fiaz has been a Labour councillor for Custom House ward in the south of Newham since 2014. Aged 47, she was shortlisted yesterday for her party’s mayoral candidate selection contest and is the sole challenger to incumbent mayor Sir Robin Wales. We met at her family home in Forest Gate last Friday.

Question: I don’t know much about you, what you’ve done or how you became involved in politics. Can you provide a potted history?

Answer: My parents came over from Pakistan in the early 1960s. I was born in Mile End hospital and my parents moved to Newham when I was two or three months old. I grew up in Newham and have never moved away, except for a short period to go to university. My brothers and I were all encouraged to pursue education, which is not atypical in terms of the migrant diaspora community.

I went to university in Wolverhampton, initially to do a degree in a law and IT  would you believe, but I switched to politics. I had to suddenly come back to London because of a family crisis. It was in the run-up to Black Monday. My father, after spending a few years working multiple jobs, had set up his own clothes manufacturing business in Brick Lane. He went into partnership with someone, re-mortgaged the house we had in Wanstead, and then the other person embezzled the money.

I came back from a Christmas break in Pakistan with my mother to visit relatives, picked up an envelope from the doormat, opened it and the letter said your house is going to be repossessed. Our world turned upside down. My father went bankrupt, my mother was devastated. For a period we were homeless and squeezed into a three-bedroom house as temporary accommodation. We basically started from scratch. I had to come back to London but I was able to transfer to Goldsmiths and did politics, philosophy and economics.

I was heavily involved in student politics. I’ve always been imbued with a sense of social justice and injustice. I get enraged when I see people not being treated well. I was a child in 1970s when UK society wasn’t as welcoming in terms of its communities then. I remember my parents being called “Paki”. In Newham there was quite a prominent National Front threat. There was a campaign in the early 1982 about the Newham 8, a group of young Asian people who had a bad experience with the police. Those things were quite formative. I was always an avid reader. I remember reading Roots and crying my eyes out, and things by Malcolm X and Gandhi – three very distinctive narratives about the black experience. I’m also very conscious about environmental issues. The first organisation I ever joined was the World Wildlife Fund, as I’m sure many young people do.

Q: And what about your working life?

A: At university I was involved with Labour students and an advocate around black student representation and issues around race equality. When I left I joined an outfit called the National Assembly Against Racism and I got quite heavily involved in the Stephen Lawrence campaign for a few years. Then I decided that I didn’t want to be solely defined by my interest in anti-racism. I was also interested in broader issues to do with social justice.

I recognised very on the different kinds of access points in wider society in terms of social mobility. I wanted to apply to Cambridge when I was at community college, doing my A-levels but the attitude was, well you can try, but there’s no chance really for someone like you. I applied to Trinity and I got an interview and I went with my parents on this cold foggy day. They were so proud. But I completely flunked the interview. There had been no kind of training or prep from the college. There’s something I’ve held on to in terms of it being incumbent on the institutions that support pupils to get their children ready for all aspects of life.

After the Lawrence Campaign I went on to Granada Media for about five years. I started off as a researcher and left as a producer. Then I went into public affairs, corporate communications with the company owned by Charles Lewington, who used to be John Major’s press secretary. I found it really dull and boring, but I wanted to understand the intersection between politics, business and media. Then I did consultancy for a company called Focus Consultancy working for various government departments in terms of engagement with minority ethnic communities and trying to recruit more from them.

Some of my colleagues and I at Focus then set up a quasi think tank/consultancy called Change Institute where we did research and evaluation for the public sector, looking specifically at emerging issues to do with race, faith and identity. When 7/7 happened everyone wanted to know about Muslim communities in the UK and Europe, radicalisation and extremism. We pitched to do some work for the European Commission and were asked to undertake this pan-European research study on the antecedents of Islamist extremist ideology. That was my focus for the next seven years.

Q: You got a gong for that, didn’t you?

A: I got a gong – to the consternation of a few people. I have the letters OBE after my name. That was in 2009. It was for services to black and ethnic minority communities. I subsequently found out that I was nominated by the Department for Communities and Local Government. It was from around the time I’d been doing quite a lot of work about Prevent. I was always really clear where I stood around Prevent – seeing a whole community solely through the prism of security was a recipe for disaster. Communities need to be engaged on multiple levels.

I was approached to work for a charity called the Co-existence Trust and that was essentially looking at building bridges between Jewish and Muslim students on university campuses. By that time there were a whole series of issues to do with hate speech, Israel-Palestine, issues around the political left or ideological Left being fused with issues around identity. It was very much about trying to navigate an amplified space where identity politics became quite prominent in terms of community interaction. Then I was approached to run another philanthropic inter-faith organisation, which was doing a very important project with UNESCO. I delivered a one million pounds educational project resource that was rolled out in most primary schools in England and Wales.

Prior to becoming a councillor I’d stood to become parliamentary candidate for Labour for West Ham in 2005 and I pitched to become the candidate in Leyton and Wanstead in 2010, but John Cryer got it.

Q: Why do you think you’d be a better Mayor than Robin Wales?

A: I am more open. I am someone who is interested in other people’s opinions – not to say that he’s not, but I am more involving. I have a view about how I would like the place where I’ve grown up to move forward. I feel it’s time for Newham to have change in terms of political leadership and for the Labour Party locally to have a choice. Why would I be better than Robin? Because I’m really, really, really good! But seriously, I’m not going to knock Robin. He’s had some good achievements in terms of bringing Newham from where it was to where it is now. I just think we can do better on various fronts.

Q: Which ones and how could you do better?

A: I think there’s something profoundly important about involving communities and ensuring that people are at the heart of everything you do. If you don’t feel that and practise it in what you do as a local authority, that can lead to some quite serious deficits both in terms of civic participation and a democratic deficit. I would like to see residents more involved in co-producing and co-creating – being at the heart of trying to solve some of our most pressing social issues, be it around how do we grapple with the increasing pressures on adult social care. I would like to see Newham revive its community sector and for us to work much more collaboratively with it and for there to be much more diversity and pluralism.

But obviously the most pressing issue is housing. I live with my parents. That’s because even with jobs that I’ve had and the senior positions I’ve achieved I literally cannot afford to buy a place in Newham. That is absurd. I appreciate all the debates going on at London region level and the issues around affordability etcetera etcetera, but if we don’t get the balance right in terms of our housing mix and emphasise that the median income in this borough is still around £26,000 – people simply cannot live. There’s got to be more genuinely affordable and more social housing.

Q: How would you get more of that than the current Mayor? You’ve got to have the land and get the finance and do the deals just the same as he does.

A: In relation to housing, to rebalance the housing supply mix. I think there’s ways we can use our Section 106 money better instead of restricting ourselves at the pre-application an pre-planning approval phase and actually leverage the benefit of a development at the end point and use that money to subsidise rent to more affordable social levels. It’s about looking at the land we own and how best we can maximise that for residents. I appreciate that the profile of families living in Newham can be quite varied. You will have single person households, but there is also a particularly acute need in Newham for family homes.

Q: Your basic point seems to be that when negotiating deals with developers you would have different priorities from the present mayor. Why do you think you would get better deals then him?

A: I think it relates to two things: one, political differences in so much as one understands the need for inward investment and also the need to attract different kinds of people into the borough, but if you pursue an agenda that leads to those who are indigenous to a particular area feeling they have been left behind it builds up resentment and fractures communities. So you’ve got to achieve a balance.

Q: Are you then more sceptical than Robin about the benefits of development in general, even if it means getting less affordable housing in total and maybe other benefits that can come out of a Section 106 agreement? Do you feel there should be more emphasis on people’s dislike of the disruption that comes with development?

A: There needs to be a rebalancing. I think the influence and push of a local authority in asserting a very, very clear vision and agenda, insomuch as the interests of residents has to come first and to do all the requisite push back on the part of developers around issues to do with viability and so on. I think we can extract much more of a better deal from developers and that we haven’t necessarily articulated that as robustly as we could.

We’re in a situation where even our council staff are saying “all this amazing regeneration in Newham is great but we can’t feel it – it’s not trickling down to us and we’re not benefitting.” And all this grand stuff around the Royal Docks developments and the “arc of opportunity” has been amazing, but what if it’s not impacting on us in any material way and we’re still struggling, you know? I appreciate that these are pressures that a lot of local authorities are facing in London.

Q: Can you define a distinctive approach that you would take to social care services and how you think communities can be more involved?

A: I’m very interested in the agenda around community wealth-building, where you have some key partners that leverage their purchasing power to help revive and build the local economy. I would like to see an assertion of collaboration at that level, where we really build up our local economy and I areas of, for instance, delivery of service at local level could be done in collaboration with local partners, community groups etcetera in a way that helps benefit a broader range of people and that they feel they are participating in shaping how those services are delivered for them.

Q: Which services are you thinking of exactly?

A: I’ve got a particular interest around youth services. In Newham, these have been reduced drastically in a borough where by 2022 505 of our population could be under the age of 25. You’ve got a serious issue around youth safety and youth violence. We’ve achieved excellent results in terms of the performance of schools but we need to develop our offer for young people. My experience of the young people that I represent in my ward of Custom House clearly evidence that they don’t feel as if they’ve been sufficiently listened to and they don’t feel that there’s sufficient access to provision. I would like to see a council that is much more engaged and open about how our children’s youth services are shaped and to see our skills and apprenticeships agenda developed in light of enabling them to seize opportunities that come up in terms of jobs.

Q: What do you think about the Workplace job brokerage, which Robin considers one of his best achievements?

A: I think Workplace is to be valued to help particularly the long-term unemployed. But I would like to see it extend its offer. It does very little in terms of young people. I think that’s a service that needs to be looked at. There are question I have around the nature of the jobs Workplace produces in terms of their sustainability. I’ve got better ambitions for my young people and for my niece and my nephew. What are we doing to incubate a tech centre hub in Newham beyond Here East [on the Olympic Park, but in Hackney], which feels very remote. I’m hearing that locating in Newham if you are a small business is very, very hard because there is no business space. So I would say that Workplace is very narrow and limited. You’re essentially looking at seasonal, retail jobs and construction. It’s a vehicle through which we can beef up and expand the offer for our young people.

Q: Some of Sir Robin’s critics liken him to steamroller, complaining that his powers of patronage and the Labour dominated make up of the council make it difficult to hold him to account. Do you agree and what would you do about it?

A: My view is this. I think in the context of a local area where there’s such dominance by a particular party, a directly elected mayoral model may not necessarily be the best model. I would be looking at reviewing it with a commitment on a referendum.

Q: So if you became mayor you would then ask residents if they think mayors are a good idea?

A: I’d be looking at setting up a commission – a democracy, citizenship and participation commission looking at all the ways we can improve political transparency and accountability, beef up scrutiny. I’m really excited by the recommendations that came out of the communities and local government select committee report looking at the effectiveness of overview and scrutiny in local government.

Q: If you believe the Mayor has made poor decisions because he has too much power and there is insufficient scrutiny, can you give an example?

A: Not wishing to sound facetious, but I wouldn’t be able to comment on how engaged he is with other cabinet members. That said, my experience of being a chair of scrutiny [committee] leaves a lot to be desired. Access to material is very limited. I don’t think that’s particularly helpful for democracy. To have scrutiny resourced to its absolute minimum, I don’t think is good enough especially in relation to what residents have a right to expect. Also, we really need to open up the council system to our residents. What is stopping us from having a mayor’s question time, where residents can come and ask questions? What is stopping us from having a system through which residents are involved in aspects of budget setting?

I think being in a position for a very lengthy period of time can lend itself to an ossified, insular way of thinking and making decisions. I think the strong leader model is about providing political direction, it’s not about being a chief executive running a local authority.

Q: There is conspicuous opposition in several parts of London to gentrification lately. That phenomenon is apparent in Newham. There is a lot of change happening, with an influx of low to middle income earners. What is your feeling about all that?

A: Change is not a bad thing. Having new people joining your community is a positive thing, it helps in terms of injecting new perspectives etcetera, etcetera. I think the challenge is how you manage that migration in so that long standing residents don’t feel they’re being left behind. I think there is a need for politicians at a local level to recalibrate some of the language that they use. I don’t think the terminology around gentrification is helpful.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: Because that assumes it’s all coming from a particular ethnic or social group, like white middle-class coming in, taking up our urban space. But I can understand that in a number of instances it will lead to resentment, particularly when existing communities feel that not enough is being done for them.

Q: Gentrification is going to happen when you have a growing population and insufficient housing supply. You can’t stop people selling houses to each other.

A: Our local plan talks eloquently and passionately about mixed communities and how the planning process should lend itself to maintaining that. You’ve got to follow through with your involvement in regeneration and planning so that certain areas don’t become the preserve of a certain kind of community. Forest Gate where we are now is starkly different from Custom House, which I represent. That is basically an area of managed decline, and it’s an outrage that a community in the south of the borough has been ignored for such a long while. The anxieties around gentrification are acutely felt by the community I represent. For me it’s about ensuring that they are not sidelined or silenced.

The regeneration that was planned there was paused for several years. It’s now come back on stream. There’s a local community group called Peach. I’ve helped support them with their alternative regeneration plan, which has been recognised by the council and has involved local people. so they feel less likely to be squeezed out.

Q: You’ve been a councillor four years, which is not very long. It’s a big job. What makes you think someone as inexperienced as you can do the huge job of being Mayor?

A: For one thing I don’t believe I am inexperienced. I have a broad-ranging career background and I’ve operated at senior and executive level. I don’t buy into this idea that you have got to have held a position for a certain length of time before you are ready. I don’t need anyone’s permission to be a leader. Throughout different stages of my life, from a young age, I’m proud that I’ve been able to demonstrate leadership in very different circumstances. I appreciate the acute challenges and complexities of running a local authority and the value of building a team of talent around you. Successful institutions or companies or local authorities don’t revolve around one individual. Success is built on people working together. That’s something I fundamentally believe in.

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