Talking to the Fabians about committees

23 Nov

On Saturday Newham Fabians held an online meeting to talk about local democracy and participation. I was invited to talk about the committee model and why I think it’s the best option for Newham.

This is what I said…

Since 2002 Newham has been run by a directly elected executive mayor – for the first 16 years that was Sir Robin Wales; the current mayor Rokhsana Fiaz has served for 2 ½ years.

The referendum in May will be the first time in close to 20 years that residents have the chance to debate and determine how our borough is run. The choice will be between the current arrangements and a modern committee system.

Newham Voting for Change, the campaign for a committee system, is delighted that there will be a clear choice between a council run by a Mayor and a small executive they appoint and a more participatory, inclusive and open system in which every councillor can play a role. We’re looking forward to campaigning for the committee system in the referendum and having the chance to make the arguments about how Newham council should make decisions and agree policy.

So, what is the committee model?

This is the flatter, less hierarchical and more collaborative alternative to having the executive – or strong leader – arrangements we have now.

Under this model, full Council holds all the decision-making powers. It is full Council’s decision whether to exercise those powers directly or to delegate them to committees or to officers. Council can decide for itself how to organise the committees and adapt them over time to meet changing needs.

While there is no set model of committees, historically they have been based on major functional areas, such as housing, finance, education and resources; along with regulatory committees such as planning and licensing; governance committees such as audit and standards; and statutory scrutiny committees, such as health.

The London Borough of Sutton, for example, has four main committees that are responsible for the Council’s principal functions. These are:

  • Strategy and Resources Committee
  • Environment and Neighbourhood Committee
  • Housing, Economy and Business Committee
  • People Committee

Full Council appoints a leader, but without executive powers and, of course, they can be replaced by full Council – not an option that exists under our current arrangements.

The council leader provides political and strategic leadership, proposing new policy, strategy, budget and service standards, as well as acting as spokesperson for the authority.

They represent the Council in the community and in discussions with regional, national and international organisations.

Although this is not an issue in our present one-party state, all committees and sub-committees must be politically balanced, where possible.

Research shows that in councils that moved back to a committee system, the role of full council has been enhanced, with more councillors involved in decision-making. Which is a key reason for moving away from a mayor or leader-and-cabinet system.

Why do we believe this the best option for Newham?

Good governance is about more than structures and processes. Political and organisational cultures, attitudes and behaviours are what make systems successful.

We have seen that the concentration of power and patronage in the hands a single individual, and their hand-picked ‘executive team’, has led to groupthink, poor decision-making and a toxic political culture. Although Rokhsana Fiaz has handed back many of her powers to cabinet there is nothing to prevent a future mayor reclaiming them for themselves.

In a modern Committee system, all 66 councillors will have the power to represent their areas and do the job voters believe they are electing them to do.

Decisions will be made by committees of councillors (from all parties, should an opposition ever manage to get itself elected) working together. All of our councillors will have a voice to represent the communities they serve – not just the mayor and their chosen few.

Power and resources for decision-making in local communities can also be built into a committee system. This means more decisions can be taken closer to the people affected.

We believe that the committee system is:

OPEN – there is more opportunity for citizens, experts and communities to have their say and influence decisions

REPRESENTATIVE – all council members have input into decisions, not just the Mayor and Cabinet

CO-OPERATIVE – councillors have to work together to make decisions

ACCOUNTABLE – every councillor takes a role in making policy and seeing decisions enacted

And a properly designed committee system will be just as swift for decision-making as the mayor-and-cabinet system.

The socialist case for committees

Socialists know that supporting open, democratic and accountable government is crucial. Our party was established to open up government to working people who had gone unrepresented — so that democracy might be used to improve the lives of the many, not just the few.

I hope the referendum debate can be a starting point for a wider discussion on how to renew our democracy in Newham. As Fabians and socialists, we have questions to answer.

How do we create a political culture based on cooperation and solidarity? How do we rebuild trust in our politics and in our public institutions? How do we build support for and fund high quality, universal public services? How do we become carbon neutral within the next decade, to avert climate catastrophe?

The scale of the task confronting us means that the public needs to be at the heart of deciding how to proceed.

I will finish by quoting Olivia Blake, MP for Sheffield Hallam and a supporter for the campaign for a committee system in her city: “Labour councils should be innovative, pioneering new democratic processes with greater citizen participation and deliberation. And we need to start now. The people are ready for change, and we should listen.”

Newham Fabian Society is the local branch of the Fabian Society, a left-leaning think tank dedicated to new public policy and political ideas that is affiliated to the Labour Party. If you’re interested in finding out more, email the secretary.

Durning Hall redevelopment

5 Nov

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CGI of the proposals (including the scheme already underway on Woodgrange Road)

Aston-Mansfield, the charity that owns and runs Durning Hall, is consulting local residents on its plans to redevelop the site, which sits on the junction of Woodgrange Road and Earlham Grove.

The charity says that

…despite the support of the community over the years, there are longstanding issues with the existing buildings that need to be addressed.

Without significant work, the site is financially unsustainable and cannot support us continuing our charitable work across Newham.

To address these challenges, we have been working on plans to redevelop the site. Redevelopment will secure our future in Newham. It will allow us to develop the work that the charity does to support children, young people and families in the borough.

The detailed plans for the redevelopment of the Durning Hall site include:

  • 78 new high-quality homes for Forest Gate, including 35% (27 new homes) at affordable levels, with associated courtyard and play space within the proposals for residents.
  • A new circa 100 sqm ‘Youth Enterprise Pop-Up Space’ to help young people develop trading and business skills.
  • 127 sqm of creative children’s playspace that will be designed to accommodate children with special educational needs and disabilities.
  • Four flexible retail units on Woodgrange Road to support local businesses in Forest Gate.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the consultation will be run entirely online. There is a dedicated website, where you can have your say.

Voting for Change

28 Oct

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Following a decision by Newham Council last Wednesday, the residents of Newham will have the opportunity to make a democratic decision about how they are governed, in the long-awaited referendum on local government.

The referendum will take place on 6th May 2021, at the same time as the London Assembly and London Mayor elections. The question on the ballot will ask Newham voters to choose between a council run by an executive Mayor and a cabinet, or a committee system made up of committees of elected councillors. This is a genuine choice between an executive model, in which decisions are made by the Mayor and a small group of councillors who make up the Cabinet, and a real alternative where all decisions are agreed by committees made up of elected councillors.

A campaign in favour of the committee system has already been launched. Newham Voting for Change is made up of Newham residents and councillors.

In a statement the group said that it welcomes the council’s decision that the choice on the ballot paper will be between the Mayoral model and the committee system.

Speaking for Newham Voting for Change, Cllr John Whitworth said: “The Mayor promised this referendum as part of her manifesto in 2018 and we’re very pleased that the date and the ballot question have now been confirmed. Newham voters will get a meaningful choice between the current system and a more open, inclusive and democratic system in which all councillors get a say in determining Council policy.”

Another spokesperson for the campaign, Josephine Grahl, said: “We set up Newham Voting for Change to make the positive arguments for the committee system: a co-operative, democratic system which gives a stronger voice to the elected councillors and residents of Newham. This is a real alternative to the Mayoral model and we hope Newham residents will support our campaign.”

The campaign has set up a website, a Twitter feed and a Facebook page.

It will come as no great surprise to regular readers of this blog but, in the interests of disclosure and transparency, I am supporting Newham Voting for Change.

Choices, choices

15 Oct

The much-anticipated referendum on the future governance of the borough is going to happen next May. 

Rokhsana Fiaz confirmed her commitment to this in an interview with the OnLondon blog, saying it would enable her to honour her manifesto pledge that a referendum would be held “before the end of my third year as Mayor.” 

Local authority governance referendums must offer voters a choice between the area’s existing model – in Newham’s case, the directly elected mayor – and one government-approved alternative. After the Democracy and Civic Participation Commission failed to recommend what that should be, a working party of Newham Council Labour group members convened to consider the options. Their findings were due to be voted on by Labour group last night. Whatever was agreed will  go forward for formal determination at the next full council meeting on 23 October.

So what are the options?

The so-called ‘People’s Petition’ campaign, which was run by a company based out of the house of Labour councillor Suga Thekkeppurayil and promoted by East Ham Labour chair Tahir Mirza, wanted the Leader and Cabinet model. This is sometimes also called the ‘Strong Leader’ model. Under this arrangement the council leader has powers similar to those of a directly elected mayor, but instead of being elected by the voters he or she is appointed by councillors from among their own number. The leader serves for four years, unless removed by a vote of no confidence by full council.

Executive power is held by the leader and the cabinet they appoint, with other councillors having little or no influence (does that sound familiar?)

This is arguably less democratic than the current situation. Now, party members – Labour, Conservatives, Greens and Lib Dems – across the borough select their candidates and the voters make their choice. Under the ‘strong leader’ model, only councillors get a say and the winner is whoever is backed by the largest faction within their political group. Assuming Labour retains 100% of the seats in 2022, just 34 councillors out of 66 will decide who’s in charge.

In Croydon, campaigners want a referendum to switch from this kind of ‘strong leader’ to a directly elected mayor. They argue that a mayor elected by the people will be more attentive to the needs of voters across the whole borough and more accountable. Perhaps in a borough that has a clear Labour/Tory split that will prove to be the case; in one-party Newham, it certainly wasn’t.

The other option is the committee system. Councils run on this model make most decisions in committees, which must be balanced according to the size of each party in the Council (not a huge issue in Newham right now). The Council Leader is appointed by full Council, but has no executive powers and the chairs of the committees are elected by the councillors. 

Campaigners in Sheffield are organising a petition to move away from the ‘strong leader’ model to a ‘modern committee system’. They say the current model excludes the majority of councillors from decision-making, asking “What is the point of voting if your councillor has no power?” They argue that a committee-based system will empower all councillors to do the job voters elect them to do. Councillors will have to work together to make decisions and cooperate to do the best for the city.

This option removes the idea of a ‘strong leader’ – be that a directly elected mayor or a council leader – and requires councillors to do the work collaboratively. Perhaps most importantly in Newham, it requires all councillors to do some work.

We will know in a week or so which alternative to the current model we can choose. 

Magical misty morning

9 Oct


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Cows!

25 Sep


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By-election. But not yet.

26 Aug

Julainanne Marriott

Julianne Marriott (left) in her role as education lead

Julianne Marriott has resigned as a councillor for East Ham Central ward. She had announced at a meeting of the Council July that she was standing down as Cabinet member for Education and is now leaving the council altogether.

If a by-election is called to replace her it won’t take place until 6th May 2021, in accordance with the current Coronavirus regulations. So there’s plenty of time for Newham’s political parties to pick their candidates!

Ms Marriott was first elected in 2014 and was re-elected 2018. She will now be devoting herself to a new full-time job. My understanding is that her new role is not politically restricted, so there was no legal requirement for her to resign. She could have sat quietly on the back benches until the next election, collecting the £11,000 a year allowance. That she chose not to is entirely to her credit.

In a farewell note to colleagues she said (emphasis added)

Representing the people of East Ham Central and being part of Newham Council for six years has been an amazing experience and one that I’ve learned so much from. I will forever be a cheerleader for Newham and the role of local government. I can only hope that this Tory Government learns to feel the same way.

The Tories have systematically underfunded and undermined local government over the last 10 years and has now left us with an over £33m bill for supporting our most vulnerable residents through Covid-19. I can only sign off with the exhortation that there is a real enemy out there – and it’s one we need to focus our energy on fighting.

i look forward to seeing you on the doorstep as part of our journey to getting the Labour government Newham’s residents need.

Notice of a casual vacancy has been posted on the council website.

Geese

26 Aug


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Homemade pizza. Not bad for a first effort!

27 Jun

Pizza
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Home baked cranberry muffins

29 May

Muffins
via Instagram