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How can local democracy itself ‘build back better’? An interview with Nick Pearce

The pandemic has shown the pitfalls of centralised power, and also the willingness of local people to participate through mutual aid. Greater participatory democracy and a standing citizens’ assembly chosen by sortition, are a way forward for local government, argues a new report.

Nick Pearce Claire Harding
23 July 2020
Newham is one of the most diverse, but also deprived, areas of the country
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Flickr/Nico Hogg, CC 2.0

This month a Commission on Democracy and Civic Participation created by the London Borough of Newham published a pathbreaking report on how to improve local democracy. Newham in East London is exceptionally diverse, and relatively unusual in having its own directly-elected mayor, who commissioned the report. Clare Harding interviews the Commission’s chair, Nick Pearce.

How did this Commission come about, and did it turn out as you expected it to?

The Commission was created in autumn 2019, fulfilling a manifesto commitment by the new Mayor of Newham, Rokshana Fiaz, to set up an independent body to review the borough’s governance. There were concerns locally about how the mayoral model had worked in Newham and whether it concentrated too much power in one individual. The new Mayor had also embarked on a set of reforms to expand democratic engagement in the borough and wanted advice on how to extend and embed these changes. I was asked to chair the Commission to examine and make recommendations on both of these issues.

Between November and February 2020 the Commission gathered evidence, including through three day-long evidence hearings with local democracy experts, a survey to gather the views of Newham’s councillors, an online platform for local people to share their views, and more than 30 engagement events organised for groups across the borough.

Of course, when the Commission started its work, we could have had no idea that a devastating pandemic was about to sweep the world. The first recorded cases of COVID 19 appeared in the UK at the end of January this year, just as we finished our schedule of public evidence hearings. By the time we came to complete the first draft of our report, the UK was in lockdown.

This dramatically changed the context in which our final report would be released. But in many ways, the pandemic strengthened our conviction of the importance of democratic renewal at a local level. Like other areas, Newham experienced a flowering of mutual aid in response to the crisis, and the local authority developed strong new relationships with the voluntary and community sector to ensure the delivery of food parcels, support for the vulnerable, the maintenance of essential services, and so on. These new ways of working can provide a foundation for ‘building back better’ from the crisis at the local level.

Newham is one of a few London boroughs which has an elected mayor, in a city that also has a Mayor. What are your key recommendations for how this system can be developed and improved?

The directly-elected Mayoral model has its supporters and detractors. It remains a minority form of governance in English local government, although it is the form taken by combined authority or ‘metro-mayors’ for places like Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, and it is widely used in other political systems. We found good evidence for the benefit of Mayors in giving visible and stable public leadership to a place, speaking on behalf of the whole borough or city, and not just the local authority. Much depends on local context too.

On balance, we felt there were good reasons to retain a directly-elected and accountable Mayor. But we argued that the Mayor should serve for a maximum of two-terms and that the Mayoralty should be nested within a wider set of participatory and deliberative democratic institutions.

As you say in the report, Citizens' Assemblies are expensive to start and to run. What convinced you that this cost and effort is worthwhile in Newham?

We made a lot of recommendations for expanding these institutions in Newham, one of which was for a permanent or standing Citizens’ Assembly, selected by sortition (choosing participants at random to represent the whole population). This could meet twice a year to deliberate on issues that are of importance to local residents, initiate policy agendas and make recommendations to the Council, and scrutinise what the Mayor and her Cabinet are doing. Here we recommend drawing on the lessons of the Ostbelgien example (the assembly set up by the East Belgian Parliament). We argued that institutionalising democratic deliberation in this way would be preferable to running ad hoc Citizens’ Assemblies – as long as it ‘docked’ into the existing structures of the Council’s decision-making. This has always been the challenge for democratic experiments, but I think we can see it being solved in places like the Republic of Ireland, which now uses Citizens’ Assemblies very extensively.

Your report concludes that a strong local media is vital for proper checks and balances on political power and local engagement. What can local councils, the GLA, and voluntary groups do to support this?

We also recommended the creation of an independent, co-operatively-owned media organisation in Newham to enhance local democratic debate. Local newspapers have closed all over the country and the ones that are left are run on a shoestring without the reporters they once had. Efforts to develop local TV stations appear to have flopped. But there is a lot more hyper-local media on-line. We looked for inspiration to organisations like the Bristol Cable, which is a co-op that delivers on and off-line investigative reporting, public discussion on policy issues, and much more. We think such an organisation could be set up in Newham, funded in a start-up phase by a one-off capital endowment.

Newham is one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country. Did this influence your choice of recommendations, and how should we support people from all communities to be involved in local decision making?

Newham is an incredibly diverse, young borough. There are people of Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian and Somalian heritage, of Black Caribbean, Eastern European and White British backgrounds, and many more. No single ethnic group makes up more than a fifth of the population. The inequalities it suffers have been made brutally visible by Covid-19, particularly the effects the pandemic has had on low income black and minority ethnic populations. Newham is also undergoing rapid change, with huge investment flowing into places like the Royal Docks and Stratford. Building relationships across ethnic groups, expanding opportunities for participation in regeneration decision-making and budget setting, and tackling low rates of voter registration and turnout are all really important ways of trying to tackle political inequality in the borough, and we made recommendations on each of these. The role of community organisations like Newham Citizens is critical too. The local authority has to open itself up to sustained engagement and co-production of services with residents and community groups.

Young people today seem to be much more active and involved in campaigning than previous generations. How can we - as slightly older generations - persuade them that making change in their local area is a good use of their time and energy?

Voting and political preferences are increasingly structured by age. The young are highly active in social movements and political campaigns, but have much lower levels of registration and turnout in formal representative democracy than older groups. They are disadvantaged by that but making change at a local level is not easy. There is a role for citizenship education in schools and colleges, and for voter registration drives. On-line voting would also help and we encourage Newham to take up that option if it is made available.

Finally, many areas were outside your remit, like council policy on the NHS, social care and income. Are there any such areas you’d like to have included as having an indirect impact on local democracy, and if so, how would you consider reforming them?

Austerity has had an enormous impact on local government. Places like Newham have had millions taken out of their budgets. I would like to see that put into reverse. Local authorities should also have much more freedom over how they raise revenues and spend their resources, and more extensive powers over services. English government is far too centralised and the Covid-19 pandemic has shown up all the dysfunctions of that. I would also like to see more democratic experimentalism at a local level – giving local authorities the power to automatically register voters, reform local voting systems, and pioneer on-line voting. Our Commission’s reforms pushed right up to the boundaries of what is currently possible in local government. Whitehall needs to give way a lot more.

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Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 29 October, 5pm UK time/1pm EDT.

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