Cllr Peter Golds is Leader of the Conservative Group on Tower Hamlets Council.
The Executive Mayoral system, as currently established for councils as opposed to regions, means that the work of councillors is both enhanced through scrutiny and yet diminished due to the powers that can be acquired and used by the person who is mayor.
Unsurprisingly, Tower Hamlets exhibited the worst of both of these positions between 2010-15.
When Labour’s John Biggs was elected in June 2015, he took control of an authority that had become a byword for incompetence, sleaze, and hidden decision making. During his first weeks, files requiring decisions and attention, some dating back months and even years, were presented to him to decide on matters which Lutfur Rahman had either shown no interest in or ignored. He also had to tackle the inherent lack of transparency and scrutiny. The latter had reached the point that by the end of the Rahman era, overview and scrutiny had such reduced funding that even basic officer support was minimal. As is well known, Lutfur Rahman refused to answer questions at council meetings on the advice of the former monitoring officer who ruled that a request for him to do so “raised human rights issues.”
Council members and the new mayor sought to put the past aside and steps were taken to introduce transparency to the council’s decision-making processes.
What the Rahman administration did not lack was government-provided money and it received lots of it for education and housing. The borough became the number one recipient of the new homes bonus in the country.
Sums of money that are routinely discussed locally will cause shock to colleagues elsewhere. Tower Hamlets has £106 million in unused Section 106 money held in a bank account. The council has £37 million receipts from Community Infrastructure Levy. The authority received £120 million in New Homes Bonus, and at the time of writing has spent £90 million of that. The council budget for its Youth Service (whose activities were notorious under Rahman) is £4 million and that excludes the £1 million budgeted for youth offending.
One of the most controversial items of expenditure is the £750,000 allocated for what is known as “community languages.” It is better known locally as “mother tongue teaching.” In short, after school classes are provided to children to enable them to speak the language of their parents. There is almost no budget for English as a spoken language for non English speaking parents, which would benefit adults and assist in integration. To even discuss this provokes the inevitable cries of racism and Islamophobia.
The council is not as dysfunctional as during the Rahman administration. However, it does follow many Labour orthodoxies, sometimes with abandon. It has also, since 2015, had to deal with a number of controversies.
In 2017 the council faced an extremely critical Ofsted report damning children’s services in the borough as inadequate.
The main areas of criticism were:-
- Children who need help and protection – Inadequate
- Leadership, management and governance – Inadequate
- Children looked after and achieving permanence – Requires improvement
- Adoption performance – Requires improvement
- Experiences and progress of care leavers – Requires improvement
This was a downgrade from the Rahman era and the criticism in the first two items were particularly important. Both indicated the failure of political leadership. Remedial steps were taken, including moving the executive member responsible for children’s services, but the publicity took the gloss off the administration and showed how important it is that this service must be supervised properly.
Planning is another matter of increasing controversy. For over a decade, Labour councillors routinely passed numerous planning applications which has made parts of this borough, particularly the Isle of Dogs, the densest area of population in Europe. Suddenly, a year before May 2018, Labour criticised overdevelopment. A major application to build 2,000 homes, mainly in massive tower blocks on an ASDA supermarket car park, overlooking a park, was withdrawn. This was an amendment to a previous application, albeit with fewer homes, which Labour had supported.
After this a number of applications have been either voted down or withdrawn. To assist on planning, the Mayor appointed a councillor as his personal adviser on planning. This member’s previous contributions to planning had been mainly to oppose academies and free schools. He had rarely voiced any objections to the many applications that came forward before his 2014 election as a councillor. He will not be standing again in May.
In December 2017 a story broke in the national media that a local political “fixer” had been taped informing a member of a development team that for £2 million and a £15,000pcm retainer, he could ease through a particular planning application. Bravado, it may have been. What caused local annoyance that this had taken place in 2015 and the council were aware of the allegations in 2015, if not the tape. Only in 2016 were the police notified and that was after the council had sought advice firstly from Ernst and Young and secondly a senior lawyer. During this time the DCLG appointed commissioners were still in place, but were not given a briefing on the circumstances of this allegation.
Other aspects of the council’s defensive culture are difficult to change. We are currently locked in a tug of war with the monitoring officer over a Labour council candidate, who has posed for photographs in a council supplied high viz jacket and jet stream with contractors employed by the council, alongside a council badged vehicle. This has been tweeted as a “Labour success.” The tweet is directly linked to Labour campaign tweets. The monitoring officer’s response is that the person in the tweet is not a candidate. Yet he is named as a Labour candidate on the party website, and his actions are tweeted as part of Labour’s election campaign. Council facilities are being used to promote his political campaign and there should be no discussion on this.
Even more disturbingly, a leading Labour member, Cllr Rachael Saunders, is standing down in May and in a personal blog of October 2017, headed “Woman hatred in Tower Hamlets” attacked the culture of misogyny within the local Labour Party. She writes on her blog:-
“Some men in the Labour Party think women’s bodies are there for their use regardless of what the woman wants. I have pulled men out of a crowded meeting where I saw them groping a young girl who could not get away. I have had to hit pummel and scream to get a car stopped when a member giving me a lift home tried to take me somewhere else. I have sat in a pub with Labour men chatting about prostitutes they have used.”
“Then there is the straightforward intimidation, phone calls after a Labour Group meeting to let me know someone would be round to finish me if I did not stop asking questions.”
Labour does not appear to actually promote the “kindler, gentler politics” that their leader once spoke of.
The Conservative group campaigns on our strong local record of community activity and scrutinising the council. For example, there have been a number of issues that cross the River Thames. Conservatives and only Conservatives, have attended and addressed the Cabinet, Licensing and Planning Committees of Greenwich Council. Cllr Andrew Wood initiated the establishment of a Neighbourhood Planning Forum on the Isle of Dogs, the largest area of development in London. Conservative councillors have profiles across the borough and we work on problems across the borough.
We bring financial rigour to localism. We are not afraid of being controversial and so our 2018 budget amendment will propose cancellation of the “community language programme.” Significantly, the Labour Mayor of London has said “all non-English speaking migrants that come to Britain should learn English.”
We also campaign for sustainable development. If our borough has the highest housing allocation in London, then it requires appropriate infrastructure. This improved infrastructure of transport, health, education and open spaces must be in the area of development. Too much money is collected and then spent on “pet schemes” far away from the communities impacted by development.
We are entering the election campaigning to ensure that Tower Hamlets is properly governed and that probity will be maintained within the authority.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of our work was identified by our former colleague, Tim Archer. He said that each year he would see our budget proposals shot down and dismissed, then mysteriously after a while many would become council policy and appear slightly repackaged.
Sadly, in the era of Momentum this is increasingly less likely, to the detriment of our local residents.