Newham Councillors have voted to give residents a choice between retaining the current directly-elected Mayor (DEM) model of local government or replacing it with a Committee System, under which decision-making powers are spread more widely among councillors, who also chose the council leader.
The decision, taken on Wednesday at a full meeting of the Council, paves the way for a referendum on the issue on 6 May next year, which, under emergency Covid-19 legislation, is the currently the soonest a referendum or any form of election can take place in England, and is the stated preference of Newham Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz.
Fiaz, who was elected Mayor of Newham for the first time in 2018, made a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on the future of her post, preceded by an independent study of how democracy and civic participation in the borough can be improved. The pledge was also part of her campaign to replace the previous, long-serving incumbent Sir Robin Wales as Labour’s mayoral candidate for that year. Sir Robin had held the post since its creation in 2002.
Members of the council’s Labour group, which has a monopoly of council seats, decided which alternative to the DEM model would be offered to Newham’s voters following a reportedly fractious internal debate. They eventually chose the Committee System over a Leader and Cabinet structure, which is the one most London boroughs use. It emerged during the meeting that councillors were whipped to support the Committee System option, as the Newham Recorder has reported.
Under that system too, the Leader is elected by councillors, rather than directly by voters, and, unlike a Mayor, can also be removed by them before their term ends. There are three other boroughs – Lewisham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney – which use the DEM model. Governance referendums must offer a choice between a local authority’s existing model and one alternative to it.
Announcing the outcome, the Council described the referendum as one of “a range of measures designed to increase the role of residents in decision-making, embed principles of participatory democracy and bolster the role of councillors and put ‘people power’ at the heart of democracy in Newham”. A trial of a “standing citizen’s assembly” – a forum designed to give residents a stronger voice in informing council decisions – was also approved at the council meeting. Its exact form and make-up will draw on previous, issue-specific assemblies Newham has previously convened.
A citizen’s assembly was among a number of measures recommended by a Democracy and Civic Participation Commission set up by Fiaz, which concluded in a report published in July that a mayoral model was on balance “both a democratic and effective” way to govern Newham, but that stronger checks, balances and accountability are needed. Fiaz has not yet said what part she will play in the referendum campaign, but has re-stated that she is committed to acting on the recommendations.
A campaign for switching to the Committee System, called Newham Voting For Change, has already been launched, arguing that doing so would move decision-making power away from an executive model, where key decisions are made by the Mayor and the group of councillors she choses for her cabinet, to what one spokesperson, Josephine Grahl, describes as “a co-operative, democratic system which gives a stronger voice to the elected councillors and residents of Newham”.
There has a been a separate campaign for a referendum offering a choice between a DEM and a Leader and Cabinet model, but although a petition claiming to have sufficient signatures – representing 5% of the Newham electorate, as required by law – was presented, the council said the petition could not be accepted before 6 May under Covid rules. Under this interpretation the need to verify signatures would mean any referendum brought about by those means could not happen until a later date. However, a legal challenge to this interpretation of the rules is in progress.
A petition for a governance referendum has also been raised in Croydon and another has been launched in Tower Hamlets.
This article was updated at 10:33 on 24 October 2020 to include mention of the legal challenge to Newham Council’s decision about the election petition and again on 26 October 2020 to include the fact that councillors were whipped to support the Committees System.
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