“If we don’t involve our people, then what’s the point?” The community-powered mayor.
Adam Lent interviews Rokhsana Fiaz, Mayor of Newham, on how a community power approach shapes the council’s work and her politics.
ADAM LENT: So you’ve been Mayor for four years now, you’ve been re-selected to run again. Has it been what you’ve expected?
ROKHSANA FIAZ: Everything and more! (laughs)
There’s some aspects of the roles that you don’t anticipate – just the vastness of issues that you’ve got to deal with. I mean, I very much knew that there was going to be quite a lot of fixing work to do. But I didn’t anticipate the scale of the fixing required.
But it’s a real pleasure to be able to see how the fruits of all that hard labour are being recognised and acknowledged by many local partners, and also partners more broadly – and indeed, the government.
I very much knew that there was going to be quite a lot of fixing work to do. But I didn’t anticipate the scale of the fixing required.
Our Covid-19 health champions network has been rolled out as a pioneer model of community involvement and engagement nationwide.
More recently, we were allocated the highest levelling up grant award in London. London was allocated £65 million, and we got £40 million of that.
So that clearly is a demonstration that as the mayor of Newham, working with a great stellar team here and my cabinet, we’re getting something right. And that’s reflective of a really ambitious agenda, which is progressing really well.
ADAM: And a big part of that agenda, from the beginning for you, was the idea of a more community-powered approach, really drawing the community into what the council is doing. Can you just tell us a little bit about how you’ve gone about that over the last four years?
ROKHSANA: Absolutely. Again, it’s probably one of the most exciting elements of what we’ve rolled out over the past four years.
we made a promise that we will become a beacon of participative democracy.
So in a nutshell, we made a promise that we will become a beacon of participative democracy. As part of our journey towards that, as our first kind of ‘beta version’, we involved and engaged residents across eight of our neighbourhoods here in our borough. They were involved in determining funds or project and programme ideas.
What’s been the real game-changer has been instituting the largest participatory budget exercise anywhere in the country. We’ve allocated £1.6 million drawn down from our community infrastructure levy funds, very much framed in the context of the requirements of SIL (Social Infrastructure Levy) spend and what that needs to be spent on.
And what’s been just absolutely mind-blowing and awesome is the energy and the excitement of our residents in being involved in determining ideas and judging ideas. Projects that are coming from local communities in their neighbourhoods, their neighbours, their friends. It’s really unleashing a sense of excitement and enthusiasm. And that’s been really refreshing and quite inspiring to see.
And then the other thing that we’ve done, has been the country’s first permanent standing citizen’s assembly. There’s been two cycles with the participants chosen randomly. And they’ve been engaged in some really important policy areas, and have resulted in some quite credible recommendations. One was ‘greening the borough’. The other one was ‘the 15 minute neighbourhood’ and how we can really manifest that through changes to our local planning system.
what’s been just absolutely mind-blowing and awesome is the energy and the excitement of our residents
But more broadly, we’re looking at the way we organise as a council and asking – where does the council’s ‘front door’ reside? Is it in big offices at the edge of the borough? No, it needs to be at the heart of communities.
ADAM: And why do you think working in that way is so important? Why do you think it’s important that residents and communities get a voice beyond just the standard model of turning up at elections and voting?
ROKHSANA: Because we are collectively facing some of the most significant challenges in our lifetimes. The council doesn’t have all the answers to all of these complex challenges in the modern world that we face.
But also, it’s important to be involved with our residents. Because I do actually think it’s important for institutions, public bodies such as local authorities to be transparent, open and outward-facing.
We’re here as public servants. The organisation that is a council does not serve itself; its purposes is our people. And if we don’t involve our people, then what’s the point?
I don’t necessarily see myself as a traditional politician. I see myself as a social activist
So for me, you know, that very much underpins my approach. But importantly, in the context of Newham there was a big, huge trust deficit that existed between the council and the voters and the rest of community. It’s reversing, and I’m really pleased to see that it’s also enabling the most marginalised voices to be heard.
Adam Lent: Excellent. One final question about your role as mayor, how do you see a mayoralty fitting into that community powered community engagement vision? Is it a strength to be a mayor? Or is it something you’ve had to adapt to that new, different way of working?
Rokhsana Fiaz: I don’t necessarily see myself as a traditional politician. I see myself as a social activist, because that’s where my roots lie. As someone who is a woman of colour, who is from an immigrant family, part of the diaspora – campaigning is in our blood, campaigning for our rights and fighting to be heard.
So that social activism for justice, for equal rights will never leave me as a person of colour, and it very much bleeds into what I do and how I practice as the mayor. And I think that, in effect, answers your question.
It doesn’t matter what the governance system is, it’s about the state of mind that you deploy as a leader – be it a leader of a political party, leader of a council, or leader of a community group. If you’re open, involved, participatory in your hard-wiring, then that is going to be infectious and that is going to be very inspiring to people.
It’s about also recognising that politics ultimately is about wanting to change the world for good and to drive forward changes that help people and there’s an innate humanity about that. And being human, in your politics and your political practice, is also fundamental.
Adam Lent: Fantastic work. Really lovely to speak to you – looking forward to hearing you speak at Stronger Things!
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