Despite, unlike Sheffield, not succeeding in a referendum on the future governance of Newham, the borough's voters have been promised a much more listening council and neighbourhood citizen assemblies by the mayor Rokhsana Fiaz, who is regarded as a keen supporter of participatory government.
In the Newham referendum, which decided to retain the Directly Elected Mayor model, those wanting a return to the committee system achieved 36,424 votes (44%), whereas those supporting a Directly Elected Mayor won 45,960 votes (56%).
In Sheffield, it went the committee way, but in Newham the mayoral option was voted for. But now the person who could be regarded as benefitting most from the result, current Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz, has affirmed herself as an avid supporter of participatory government.
In her victory speech she said:
Making sure the Council listens to people is my top priority, that is why I have established neighbourhood citizen assemblies to give people more voice to shape their local community and have a role in local decision-making. I have introduced the largest participatory budget making programme anywhere in the country, and the UK’s first permanent Citizen Assembly.
In a long read from New Local, which notes that the permanent Citizens Assembly will kick off this September, they report that the first topic has not yet been selected – though appropriately, it is up to Newham residents to choose between topics that include health inequalities, a ‘new deal’ for young people, and seizing the potential of technology. After they have come up with recommendations on one topic the group will continue indefinitely refreshing members so nobody serves twice. [If you’re a Newham resident, you can register for the CA here.]
Campaign group Newham for Change had expressed disappointment with the referendum result. Chair Josephine Grahl said 'although it is disappointing that we did not win, it is encouraging to see local people engaging in the debate about how their council is run'. She also said they were 'encouraged by commitments made to wider participation through citizens’ assemblies and the proposed trialling of small-scale community councils where some powers are devolved to local areas.'
There’s been further praise for Preston Council's approach since May 6th, when the town's citizens re-elected the Labour councillors who have been responsible for their now world-famous “Model for community wealth-building". (You can hear the practical wisdom of their leader, Matthew Brown, in this Novara Media interview). But it’s not the only place where Labour politicians have been paying close attention to the bottom-up demands of community power.
The New Local piece collates some other recent town-and-city-oriented citizen assemblies: “They’ve been national – on the future of social care; or on climate change assemblies in Scotland. There have been regional exercises on how Bristol can recover from Covid-19; whether assisted dying should be allowed in Jersey; how to help people have a healthier relationship with alcohol in the Wirral. And there have been hyper-local initiatives –like Test Valley’s assembly on the regeneration of the area around a local bus station.”
The Alternative website has recently included some further information about one of the local town council successes mentioned in the earlier Civic Revival post, Maker-with-Raime Parish Council in Cornwall. Their independents group INFORM (standing for ‘Independents for Rame and Maker’) - took over the Parish, targeting the negativity and can’t-do attitude of the incumbents. Through adroit use of social media, and with advice and guidance from Flatpack Democracy, INFORM managed a turn-out of 67% - considerably higher than the 39% average for Cornwall.
Yet as the piece notes towards the end, these initiatives can only be a remedy for popular cynicism about politics and government if their recommendations are actually enacted in policy.
The Alternative UK website seeks to keep an eye on the wider field of democratic innovation and localist experiment, which citizens’ assemblies are a part of. They believe it's important to test the concept of the CAN (citizen action network) against the inherited structures of local democracy or social enterprise.