Lewisham's local assemblies

The London Borough of Lewisham has developed a new local assembly model. It broke new ground in deciding on the model itself. A mayor's commission enabled all political parties to buy in to the new model.

Key learning points

  • A mayor's commission might be an appropriate tool for those issues that need full council ‘buy-in' or where there is no party in overall control.
  • Local assembly meetings involved the community in creating local solutions to local issues, instead of borough-wide policies that didn't work everywhere in the borough.

Background to the council

Lewisham has a population of 250,000 people. The borough is relatively young with one in four residents being under 19. One in seven residents is over the age of 60.

Lewisham is the 15th most ethnically diverse local authority area in England. Two out of every five residents are from a black or ethnic minority background. More than 130 languages are spoken.

Lewisham has more than 800 active voluntary and community sector organisations and upwards of 200 faith groups.

Lewisham has one of the first elected mayors in the country. There are 54 councillors representing 18 wards, but no political party has a majority on the council.

The problems and how we tackled them

There is huge diversity in the borough and significant differences between parts of the borough. The council did not have ways of recognising this and working with these differences. Borough-wide policies were designed to meet the needs of parts of the borough but didn't work everywhere.

Although existing area forums helped consult residents about council plans, they were hardly a vehicle for neighbourhood engagement. This was because they each covered three wards and about 30,000 electors. The council wanted to build on its local experiences through SureStart, neighbourhood management and community wardens. These had each offered insights and improved working between local services and the community.

The council felt that councillors needed better ways of engaging with their communities and help in their community leadership role.

The Mayor's Commission on Empowering Communities and Neighbourhoods was set up in September 2006. It was to consider how best to empower local people and get them to engage with their locality. It had a very different remit from a select committee.

Each political party was invited to nominate someone to be a member of the commission. However, they were to speak for themselves rather than a party. Numbers were kept down to 18 to 20 people to ensure manageability.

The idea was that policy thinking could be done in an open forum, not among politicians behind closed doors. Experts could be present and ideas could be explored before a consensus was reached.
The commission carried weight as the mayor would eventually present the outcome report to committee. However, the outcome of this commission would ultimately need a full council decision. This was because it required an amendment to the council's constitution and a budget decision.

The mayor's commission

The mayor knew that any solution would need to be owned by all political parties. Delivery relied on the participation of local councillors in each ward. He wanted to get the message across early on that any solution would not be about replicating town hall party politics at ward level. Councillors would be key players but it needed to be the community's space.

At its fourth meeting, after discussions and deliberations, the commission was presented with three models for neighbourhood empowerment.
The options were:

  1. Continuing with existing neighbourhood arrangements: specifically, the area forum programme and neighbourhood management.
  2. Introducing statutory parish councils.
  3. Introducing a universal ward-based approach.

The commissioners considered each model against the following criteria:

  • increased citizen participation and enhanced resident engagement
  • the degree of bureaucracy
  • the role of the ward councillor
  • the ‘urban context' of Lewisham as a place
  • localised influence in decision making
  • synergy with current administrative arrangements
  • provision of a minimum offer
  • cost
  • the nature of community and local need.

Based on this discussion, the commissioners recommended option 3 - a universal ward-based approach. This consists of:

  • an assembly for each ward - ideally chaired by a local councillor
  • the support of a ward coordinator, based in the council's community services directorate, with direct links to the wider strategic aims and executive functions of the council and its partners
  • a web-based presence to provide an established means of communication and information sharing
  • a charter setting out what the assembly can expect in terms of the council's response to issues raised.
  • information about local services and events, the role of local councillors and the administrative support to be provided.

The charter also describes the council's expectations in relation to the extent to which the assembly is representative of the local community.

The commission also recommended setting up coordinating groups for each assembly to help steer and monitor progress between assembly meetings. These were formed at the first assembly meeting from attendees willing to get more involved.

A new local assemblies team was recruited, the basis of which were the six assembly coordinators each serving three wards. Leadership and support programmes were put in place for the team, councillors and the coordinating groups.

Influence on decision making

The aim of the ward assemblies was to establish ways of articulating and prioritising local concerns and identifying local solutions. Several ways to take these local concerns forward were identified: by the assembly itself, by ward councillors, through the local strategic partnership (LSP) or through the council.
The ward assembly model envisaged developing an annual priority plan. This would set out the key local issues identified by the assembly and the priorities for addressing them. The annual plan could then be considered by the appropriate decision-making body within the council.

The ward assembly can also interact with the council and other public agencies in other ways, including:

  • putting forward items for discussion at council select committees
  • making recommendations on the use of a £10,000 locality fund assigned to each assembly
  • getting council officers to act as a result of feedback from the ward coordinator, progressed through the community services directorate
  • getting elected members to initiate action through casework
  • using new opportunities outlined in the local government white paper, for example, the Community Call for Action
  • providing evidence-based analysis and proposals to the Stronger Communities Partnership.

Outcomes and impact

At the time of writing, Lewisham's local assembly programme had completed the first round of 18 assembly meetings.

It has begun training councillors and coordinating group members. Some wards had begun the second round of assembly meetings.

The first round of meetings had used an innovative style of delivery. Most of the meeting was devoted to round tables of between six and 10 people. This was a professionally-facilitated process to encourage all to participate.

Its aim was to enable the best possible understanding of people's perceptions of local issues and potential solutions.

What was notable about this first round was the lack of a ‘top table', the informal style and approach and good refreshments. There were also good opportunities for networking. There was great diversity of the participants in terms of age, ethnicity, ability and community role.

The public response to the first round of assembly meetings was overwhelming. The statistics included:

  • 1,550 people participated in the first round of assembly meetings with an average attendance of 86 - the lowest being 45 and the highest 180.
  • Twenty-seven per cent of the attendees were from black and ethnic minority communities - compared to a 34.7 per cent proportion of total residents.
  • Though only 14.4 per cent were aged under 35, 56.2 per cent were between 35 and 64, and 26.8 per cent over 65.
  • Eighty-six per cent of participants felt the assembly allowed them to learn more about local issues.
  • Seventy-six per cent felt that the assembly helped build good relationships within the community.
  • Ninety per cent said they would attend another, but only 42 per cent felt the assembly had allowed them to influence decisions at this stage.

What could be done better and next steps

  • Ensuring that attendance of assembly meetings reflects the diverse nature of Lewisham's residents and, in particular, that attendance is increased among under-35s.
  • Sustaining the dynamic, inclusive approach established in round one assemblies, rather than slipping back into a traditional meeting format.
  • Ensuring that council and partner organisations deliver local solutions to local issues and in particular that ‘quick wins' are delivered.
  • Not overstretching officers by requiring attendance at multiple assembly meetings.
  • Maintaining and increasing levels of participation both at and outside of the assemblies.


Paul Jackson, Local Assemblies Team Manager
telephone: 020 8314 9676
email: paul.jackson@lewisham.gov.uk

Article published November 2008