Our Mayoral Referendum: Are we asking the right question?

20 Apr

The mayoral model

IMG 0675 copy

By Cllr Susan Masters

Okay, so I start this stressing that art was among my worst subjects at school – apologies for the diagrams. However, over the last few days I’ve started wondering whether, in common with a few recent referenda, we might not be asking the wrong questions in our vote on May 6th. I’m not talking about the vote for London Mayor or the East Ham Central by-election (if you live in East Ham Central – I don’t) but the decision we all have to make about the model of governance that decides how our council will be run politically.

That question is set: We are being asked to decide between a Mayoral and Committee model of leadership. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I have realised that whichever model we opt for, that is just the start point – that both systems should have us asking a load more questions. In drawing out both systems to try and make the differences clearer, I am clear that even as someone who has served as a councillor for the last 7 years, I might have got some details wrong and am happy for this to be corrected as much as being a start point for debate but here are the questions I feel need to be asked – some equally round both systems, some just for one or the other.

And before I start – I am (just about) a supporter of change alias the committee model – though I now feel a very modified Mayoral system giving more power to cabinet members but, equally, stronger powers to scrutiny and Newham residents as a whole could be equally empowering. I should also stress that In both models officers will run the council day-to-day, from top to bottom, and provide data and reports under the direction of the political leadership but here are the issues that I feel beg questions

  1. Starting at the bottom line – the selection process. What kind of councillor do you want to represent you? Is it about a level of professional competence, personal experience or a relationship with a geographical or other community? Are those voices making it through? If not, what are the barriers? How can those be changed?
  2. The Mayoral model has been celebrated as a chance for the residents of Newham to select the person who leads them and the manifesto they are elected to take forward. But given that power is exercised only once, before a term has begun, where is the power to intervene when you feel that choice has gone awry? Should there be ways in which residents can track the extent to which a manifesto has been brought forward and perhaps have an input to renegotiate their mandate?
  3. Scrutiny. Under the Mayoral system scrutiny is the check and balance on the executive (the Mayor, her cabinet and commissioners/deputy cabinet members), where the other councillors (those not in cabinet, deputy cabinet members or commissioners) can review or explore, writing reports and passing recommendations to those leading. As the system stands, though, they have no power to force change – even when the desire to row back is huge. Does this, in itself, need to change? It should also be stressed that non-cabinet councillors do have other key roles serving on a series of statutory committees governing planning, licensing, audit, pensions and standards.
  4. But what of the residents? We have already discussed their lack of input within the four year terms to call the Mayor to account, but what can they currently do to participate in their council – well, they can bring petitions; attend council as a deputation to query policy and make alternative suggestions; attend public meetings; have access to reports and papers that our committees base their deliberations on; suggest projects to improve our borough through their citizens’ assemblies and raise matters with the Mayor or their local councillors. Though again, is that enough? How could that be improved and should it? Or should those residents, many of whom who have fought long and difficult paths to be councillors, exercise their own electoral mandate, unlimited?
  5. As my poor drawing of the Mayoral model shows, the Mayor has enormous power to appoint and sack cabinet members (as full-time roles with enhanced payments attached), decide how much responsibility and which issues are delegated to them to decide, appoint or lead external bodies and partnership boards. The Mayor also appoints deputy cabinet members and commissioners (part-time roles, but also with boosted allowances attached and who are answerable to the Mayor). Is that too much power/responsibility for one person or about clarity and ownership? Again, if we do stick with the Mayoral model is it time to look at this and ask whether cabinet leads deserve more responsibility to lead their portfolios and manage deputy members and should those who lead those portfolios equally need to be called to account for performance?
  6. What of the role of council in the Mayoral model? At the moment, it decides the budget, key strategies, key governance changes and motions brought by members among other policies. Should more power come back to it from cabinet?

So those are the questions I feel are begged by our present Mayoral model. Moving on to the Committee model, this is a system I haven’t experienced so there are queries galore and bits I might have got wrong. I hope any debate will allow for correction as much as deliberation.

Councillor selection raises the same questions but with the Mayoral model gone, the electorate just have the choice of 3 ward councillors to go forward to the full council. Council then elects chairs and members to a number of committees. As with the mayoral model, officers run the council day-to-day, collect data and supply reports and for councillors there are still the statutory committees that deal with licensing, planning, accounts, audit, pensions and standards, but the key policy decisions will be taken by a policy and strategy committee not a Mayor with or without cabinet – so…

Question 7: I would ask how the membership of that is decided and who is on it (and in what balance) as that will dictate the council’s direction. You also have to ask what other committees should exist to ensure effective political leadership. Apparently most committee model councils have 4-8 of these – what areas should they govern? Also, should there still be a full compliment of scrutiny committees? A Health scrutiny committee is required but what of our current other areas of scrutiny (crime and anti-social behaviour, regeneration and housing and children and young people)? Would a committee system allow for such checks and balances to go on within those committees or are additional checks required?

This leads into question 8, the processes by which that Committee model council chooses chairs, members and elects a leader as well as deciding how much power to keep and how much to delegate to its committees.

Question 9: Where do partnership bodies fit into all of this? These are the committees that bring together key local services largely round issues such as adult safeguarding, corporate parenting or health to ensure all those services work together smoothly.

And finally, question 10. What of residents? Where is their voice and how will our first steps into participatory democracy fare in a committee system?

These are just some of the questions I feel both systems need to answer. Others might have additional ones. I look forward to a lively debate.

Susan Masters has represented East Ham South on Newham Council since 2014. This post originally appeared on her Facebook page and is reproduced here, with permission, for the benefit of those who either cannot or do not wish to access that website.

2 Responses to “Our Mayoral Referendum: Are we asking the right question?”

  1. Kronikal April 20, 2021 at 22:14 #

    In question 4, you list the things that residents can currently do, and, regrettably, this paltry list presumably wouldn’t be any different under the committee system. In practice, it means most residents feel they can do nothing.

    Nevertheless, to answer question 5, yes the current system does give far too much power to one person, especially if that person is prepared to exploit it to the hilt.

    As for the last part of question 4 (asking if those successfully-elected residents “many of whom who have fought long and difficult paths to be councillors” should therefore keep all the power) – the paths they have fought have all been within the Labour party. The prize of Labour nomination virtually guarantees their elevation to the council. Anyone in another party could fight five times as hard, to no avail. Yes, you can claim that’s up to the voters, but typically two-thirds of those who bother to vote in Newham vote for Labour candidates, yet Labour candidates comprise three-thirds of all those elected to power.

    • Alan Griffiths April 26, 2021 at 12:46 #

      Two thirds! That would be a low figure in most Newham wards.

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