Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.
Since the outbreak of coronavirus, Tower Hamlets has been the beneficiary of an announced £200million of additional government funding. In a pandemic situation, and with the known local need, this huge sum was not unexpected.
The Borough of Tower Hamlets, covering the east end of London, has a population of some 317,000 people, making it now the tenth most populous of the 32 London boroughs. Covering just 7.63 sq.miles, it is the seventh most densely populated of the London Boroughs. National and regional policy indicates a projected population increase of 30 per cent over the next few years, which will make this easily the most densely populated borough in London, and indeed the country.
The Borough is known for areas with substantial indices of deprivation, whilst at the same time including the Canary Wharf complex, the world’s fourth largest financial centre. The complexities of governance with extremes of wealth and poverty adjoining one another are enormous. During the two decades of this century, the borough has frequently been in the news, blighted by controversy relating to poor governance.
Coronavirus has hit this area hard. There is a majority BAME population, overwhelmingly from Bangladesh, often living in poorly maintained and overcrowded housing. There is also high unemployment within this community. Like the adjoining councils, Hackney to the north, and Newham to the east, the borough is governed by an executive mayor which concentrates policy and decision making into a single, directly elected figure.
Councillors only exercise actual decision making with regard to the regulatory matters of licensing and planning. Their main function is the scrutiny of mayoral decision making and a two-stage process of approving the Mayoral budget. A simple majority of councillors can reject the budget at an initial meeting, and then amend the budget at a second meeting, but only with a two-thirds majority. If this is not achieved, then the Mayoral budget is implemented. Hackney and Tower Hamlets have overwhelming Labour majorities, whilst Newham is a single party council under Labour control. Each has a Labour mayor and therefore the budget inevitably passes as proposed.
Tower Hamlets has a very small number of opposition councillors. However, they are all well versed in local government, strong minded, and not afraid to ask difficult questions as and when necessary. Early in the crisis the council established a number of centres to provide free school meals across the borough – apart from the Isle of Dogs. This changed when opposition councillors along with residents protested.
Certainly in a crisis situation such as with Coronavirus, the mayor personally exercises enormous powers. This is a good thing inasmuch as the decision making is clear, as long as it is accompanied by transparency. For councillors the issue has been how to scrutinise decisions in a meaningful way and how to continue to undertake regulatory tasks, in a situation where the primary focus must be managing the local response to the pandemic. The Mayor had previously resolved to bring the council’s refuse contract “in house.” Unfortunately implementation of this was as the crisis was breaking and there was a strike by refuse workers causing a backlog of rubbish clearance in March and April.
The Tower Hamlets Mayor has been making his decisions online. Reports have been produced and are presented on line by the officers. Members can submit questions which are considered before the Mayor’s decision is announced. Members of overview and scrutiny have met via web cast and the council has successfully held a licensing meeting by web – which was open to public viewing.
Since the outbreak, the council has received substantial funding from the taxpayer, provided by the government. This can be seen as follows:
- Small Business Rate Relief and the new Extended Retail Relief scheme: £78.8m – received and if comments are anything to go by, the council team is working well to deliver this.
- Covid-19 Emergency Funding grant: £10,448,682.
- Covid -19 Hardship Fund: £4,382,100.
The council is due the funds relating to the 100 per cent Business Rates relief in 20/21 – this is estimated at £98m but will be received in parts over the year.
There was also £12,752 for 2019/20 homelessness paid in March.
As well as handling this additional funding the council undertook many decisions.
In one of these, the council stumbled in the initial stages of the lockdown, closing Victoria Park, by far the largest open space in the borough, located on the northern border with Hackney. This closure was not helped with YouTube images of some heavy-handed policing in the park. Common sense prevailed and the park has re-opened as a place of exercise in this densely populated authority. In the south of the borough, the Greenwich foot tunnel has been closed stopping the ability to cross the River Thames by foot. There has been controversy for some time regarding the foot tunnel as pedestrians have vied with cyclists (who ignore rules forbidding cycling) for use of a narrow space which made social distancing all but impossible. The situation has now been changed with closure only at weekends and bank holidays, although the lifts to the tunnel itself are out of action all the time.
As the lockdown commenced, groups came together to help the disadvantaged, and volunteers have been delivering food parcels and, where possible, trying to keep in touch with the elderly and vulnerable. It should be remembered that not all the elderly are vulnerable and that not all the vulnerable are elderly. My colleague, Cllr Andrew Wood, organises a Canary Wharf residents Facebook group which has 14,000 registered friends. He is assiduous in posting national and local information and official notices. This has become an invaluable resource of information for residents.
With council staff concentrating on handling the emergency, the focus on casework has changed. Councillors have not been able to hold face to face advice sessions, but email and personal messages have increased in importance. The council is prioritising enquiries with those relating to coronavirus regarded as the most important.
There has been an increase in burials at the council leased ground in a cemetery in Bromley. This site was purchased during the Rahman administration as an attempt to subsidise burials. Until the last few weeks burials at the site were few and far between.
With the sums of taxpayers money pouring into the council, scrutiny is essential. This is from the taxpayer and not a new resource or from their reserves. Cllr Wood and I were both concerned at one decision to allocate £98,000 to “community and faith groups.” This was reminiscent of the Rahman era. In particular, the two largest allocations stood out. The Osmani Trust, which received £28,000 and the Docklands Community Organisation (which is not a community organisation) which received £16,000 both had strong connections to the Rahman administration.
As well as community groups helping residents we have an active community of “council watchers” who do their best to shine lights on the council.
You will all have seen the pictures and accounts of the creation of the Nightingale Hospital at the Excel Centre, which is close to the border of Newham and Tower Hamlets. My abiding memory of 2020 will be that this very place was to have been the venue where, for at least four of the London Assembly constituencies, votes would have been counted over the weekend, as the climax of the 2020 local elections. Let us hope that we can return to normality as soon as possible.