This coming weekend, Mayor Lutfur Rahman will use his column in East End Life to talk about the neglect of Bow. I know this because I asked him to at a meeting last night.
A few weeks ago, his cabinet member for resources Alibor Choudhury approached my neighbour, Ray Gipson, a former Liberal Democrat councillor, to ask what the administration could do for Bow. He asked Ray to assemble a few people for a brainstorming session with the Mayor in Roman Road last night. Lutfur seemed a bit surprised to see me there and remarked, possibly with a wink in his eye, that he had no idea I lived in the area, saying, “I thought you lived in Wapping.”…
I asked him what was his strategy for Bow, how he intended to capitalise on the Olympic legacy and connect Roman Road to the growing artistic community in Hackney Wick and Fish Island. I pointed out that it was surprising (to put it mildly) that here we are, two weeks from the start of the Games and nothing has been done to regenerate the Roman as a visitor and resident destination, particularly given that he has led the council pretty much since 2008.
For those unfamiliar with the geography, Roman Road is a famous market street that is about a ten minute walk from the Olympic Stadium. In theory, it should be beginning to thrive, it should be bustling with well-kept shops and cafes and even as an up-and-coming small business destination–much as Shoreditch was 10-15 years ago.
Instead, we have one of the highest concentrations of pawn-brokers and money lending outfits anywhere in the UK; we have had an explosion of fruit and veg shops; we have an amusement arcade that no one seems to visit; and we have the usual Tower Hamlets delicacy: a line of fast-food fried chicken shops.
A few years ago, there were five pubs on the Roman; now there is one. It has been a sad decade of decline. Much of it has been market forces, but it has also been down to a lack of imagination and desire, but there really is now an opportunity to reverse all that.
Last night was interesting on several levels. I think it was the first time I’d seen Lutfur really close up, in business mode and talking to residents about action plans. At first, he struggled and seemed a touch ignorant about the issues in Bow, surprisingly so for someone who went to school in this area. But, bolstered by the input of Alibor and Marc Francis (who was there, ostensibly, as a ward councillor but also because he is, as Lutfur put it, willing to work with the administration (and rightly so, if delivery is what counts)), he got into his stride and started to appear more managerial and decisive. He was courteous and (I hope) genuinely interested.
Of course, there are also political motives. Being seen to “do something for Bow” would deflect the criticism that he is only interested in specific parts of the borough. There is also a growing Bengali population in Bow. And having executive powers is a useful tool when there are rival politicians on this patch also trying behind the scenes to push through regeneration plans. I speak, of course, of Josh Peck, the leader of the Labour group and a ward councillor in Bow West.
More than once during last night’s meeting, he and Alibor couldn’t resist a couple of pointed digs at Josh’s expense. Take, for example, the £1.6million handed to an officer-convened “working group for Bow” set up some five years or so ago. Lutfur and Alibor said £600,000 had been allocated by the Department for Communities and Local Government and £1m by the council. The group was chaired by Josh, who was then the cabinet member for resources. Marc Francis was also a member. Barely any residents knew it even existed.
Every single penny of that £1.6million has been spent. But on what? “That’s what we want to know,” Lutfur said. “That’s why I’ve asked for an investigation.” Marc then chipped in saying some of it went on repainting some shopfronts (we don’t know which), paving part of the road, some street furniture and….consultants. Marc admitted that using the consultants had been a mistake. He said the expertise to regenerate a street didn’t exist within the council. I asked why the council’s regeneration team couldn’t do it. Because they do a different kind of work, Marc replied.
So, there we have it. No wonder large parts of the borough look shabby and run down. It seems there is not one person employed by the council who has the skills or the eye to improve the quality of our street-life. It really beggars belief. Instead of doing the obvious thing of actually asking residents if they have the expertise and the ideas, they go running for waste-your-money consultants.
Marc said lessons have now been learned. A new working group is to be set up for Bow and Lutfur is promising to deliver. He intends to go on a walkabout in the area with some officers. I’ve suggested immediate improvements could be made to the walk many commuters take each morning under Tom Thumb’s Arch to Bow Road Tube station: improve the lighting, repair the paving stones, clamp down on dog dirt, plant some flowers, get the kids involved in public art.
Alibor and Marc will run the group, but let’s hope it’s non-political. I’ve said I might get involved and I hope the group which is currently bidding for some government money under the Mary Portas pilot scheme will also be invited.
It would be such a waste of time, energy and money if there were two rival groups working on the same thing, wouldn’t it? (Josh is involved with the Portas group…)