The beginning of July saw the publication of a report designed to strengthen democracy and participation in the London Borough of Newham that has relevance to all councils and communities, regardless of the country they are in. The report of the Newham Democracy and Civic Participation Commission (122 pages) provides a blue print for revitalising local democracy that could be applied, noting different legislative contexts, in any community. The scope of the Commission’s deliberations is reflected in the chapter headings, which are all topics that councils in New Zealand wrestle with, or should be wrestling with, on a regular basis.
The Commission was established in 2019 with two main tasks:
- To examine both the council’s current directly elected mayor system of governance and the alternative approaches that exist in England;
- To explore ways in which local residents could have opportunities to be more engaged and involved in local decision-making and the Council’s work.
The major questions addressed in the report are summarised below.
On the question of the mayor’s role the Commission considered whether having an executive mayor added value to the borough and concluded that the clear accountability of decision-making and the stability that resulted from the executive mayoral model justified its continuation. However they did recommend a number of checks and balances on the power of the mayor, these included:
- A two term limit
- A permanent “deliberative assembly of local residents to initiate policy agendas and make recommendations for policy change”;
- A more participatory system of governance that would give councillors and local residents to engage in setting agendas, shaping policy and making decisions.
Underpinning these changes they were looking for a stronger local media and revitalised role for elected councillors.
These recommendations are highly relevant to New Zealand. Although we don’t have an executive mayoral model it is common for councillors to feel excluded from the agenda-setting process and limited as far as their ability to recommend policies. LGNZ’s surveys of elected members also show that they want a higher level of engagement with communities, Iwi/Māori and business organisations than currently occurs. Paradoxically the framework providing for a responsive local democracy in New Zealand appears to be far from conducive to that outcome.
The chapter on area and neighbourhood governance has important lessons for New Zealand’s council. The Commission defines area or neighbourhood governance as “the way in which smaller areas and localities within the borough have the power and freedom to decide things for themselves and to spend money to resolve local issues”.
While describing potential structures (community boards are a New Zealand example) the Report recommends a flexible approach to enable areas to choose to draw down different amounts of power than their neighbours – whether this is street by street or consolidated by local agreement. A key recommendation is that Newham carry out a “borough-wide community governance” review to create a framework to allow area working to flourish. In addition the Commission recommends that:
- The Borough extend participatory budgeting and increases the resources allocated to neighbourhoods to spend through participatory means;
- That area-based participatory decision-making be aligned with the annual budget cycle;
- That the council identify and area to trial an urban parish or community council
Participative and deliberative democracy
The Commission gives substantial emphasis to councils as “democratic institutions” and on that basis make a number of recommendations designed to improve dialogue and participation. The Commission suggests that the Borough develop a framework for citizen participation that sets out what stakeholders will contribute, the objectives and limitations of public participation and core underpinning principles – a “statement of citizen participation”.
A practical tool discussed by the Commission is a Citizens’ Commission which can be established for specific issues, such as developing a response to climate change (which Newham had previously used) or established on a permanent basis. Citizens’ Assemblies have the potential to engage with the necessary trade-offs required when making significant decisions. The Commission recommends that a Citizens Assembly is established to meet twice a year to encourage wider debate on matters of community concern.
Co-production and community empowerment
Co-production refers to local citizens working with public bodies to design services and is an area that the Commission believes, following submissions from local people, needs to be better integrated in the public value process. Co-production initiatives must also occur with realistic expectations that take into account the capacity of local organisations. Specific recommendations included:
- That Newham evaluate its co-production efforts with local people themselves;
- That as part of its community asset mapping the council consider how existing knowledge and skill can be pooled;
- That the council better understand the community and voluntary sector’s need for infrastructure support and that a central unit is established to disseminate information for co-production and community engagement.
Local Democracy and Political Inequality
Noting that young people and those form the lowest income background are less likely to register and vote the Commission made a number of suggestions to improve turnout including the establishment of a task force to identify those who are excluded or other not engaged in formal representative democracy and set a targeted approach to civic education on local democracy. To address the decline of local media it recommended that the Borough undertake the creation of a “cooperative citizens’ media organisation that would be funded through its start-up phase through an endowment.
The Role of Local Councillor
One of the features of local reform over recent decades has been a gradual marginalisation of councillors as governments have sought to make councils work more like board than public organisations. Councillors themselves are asking for a greater involvement in community leadership and decision-making.
The Commission argues for the creation of “an overarching narrative on councillors’ roles” particularly in oversight, direction setting and representing community views”. Pleasingly it also notes that for councillors to exercise these roles then a commitment to training and development is essential. Suggestions are:
- The development of a borough-wide policy covering the individual and collective roles of councillors
- Influencing, scrutinising and challenging the Council and other partners;
- New arrangement for locality and area working
- More active use of the “co-option scheme” to draw individuals with a wider range of perspectives onto formal committees.
The full report can be downloaded here.