Tower Hamlets: Council on course for governance referendum in May 2021

Tower Hamlets: Council on course for governance referendum in May 2021

Tower Hamlets Council is set to hold a referendum on the future of its local government system on 6 May next year, with a choice being offered between its current, directly-elected Mayor (DEM) model and a Leader and Cabinet arrangement, which sees the Leader elected by councillors.

The choice for the referendum was voted on at a meeting of the majority Labour group of councillors on Monday, with the alternative option of a Committee system, which sees decision-making powers spread more widely among councillors, said by sources to have been heavily rejected despite some opposition and objections that the issues have been insufficiently debated.

The full council meeting on 18 November will formally decide if a referendum will be held and which of the two alternatives to the DEM model will be presented to the electorate. Only one alternative to the existing model can be offered. Council sources say the 41 Labour councillors will be whipped to support the Leader and Cabinet option. A ten-year moratorium on governance referendums expires this year.

Tower Hamlets electors voted to adopt the DEM system at a referendum in 2010. The ensuing first mayoral election, held in October of that year, saw a former Labour Council leader, Lutfur Rahman, win comfortably as an Independent, having been controversially dropped as Labour’s mayoral candidate the previous month.

Rahman was re-elected in 2014, but the election was later declared void following an election court challenge, with Rahman found to have engaged in “corrupt and illegal practices” and removed from office, though no criminal charges followed.

The 2014 runner-up, Labour’s John Biggs (pictured), won a fresh mayoral election in 2015, defeating Rabina Khan, a former member of Rahman’s cabinet who now sits on the council as her party’s sole Liberal Democrat member. Biggs was re-elected in 2018 with 73% of first preference votes, again defeating Khan who ran for the short-lived local People’s Alliance of Tower Hamlets party, formed of former Rahman supporters.

Biggs announced last month that he is to give up some of his executive powers and begin sharing more decision-making with senior councillors. He is understood to believe a new governance referendum is desirable after ten years, though it is also the case that activists seeking to do away with the mayoral system have been organising to bring one about.

A referendum has to be held if validated signatures favouring one and amounting to at least 5% of a local authority’s registered electors is presented to the council. The Tower Hamlets council website is hosting one such petition.

The Tower Hamlets move comes with a legal challenge soon to be heard into the legality of Newham Council, one of three others in London with the DEM system, saying it could not accept a referendum petition raised in that borough before 6 May because of emergency Covid-19 legislation.

The petitioners’ case is that Newham should have accepted the petition when it was presented in September and was legally obliged to have determined if enough of its signatures were valid by 18 October and, if that proves to be the case, that the council cannot lawfully hold its own referendum.

The Newham petition proposes that the Leader and Cabinet arrangement should offered as the alternative to the DEM model. The council decided on 21 October to hold a referendum itself, with the Committee system as the alternative.

The outcome of the Newham case will be of keen interest to referendum campaigners in Croydon, who wish to see a change from their council’s Leader and Cabinet arrangement to the DEM model. Like Newham’s petitioners, they were told that a petition they presented in September cannot be accepted before 6 May.

However, Croydon’s new leader Hamida Ali, who took over in October, has said she intends to meet the petitioners, signalling a different approach to the issue from that of her predecessor.

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