This is a guest post by TIM ARCHER, who is standing down as a Conservative councillor tomorrow after eight years in the job. He was elected in 2006 and formed part of an exceptionally strong trio at the top of the local Tory party, along with Peter Golds and Simon Rouse. I asked him to write a piece reflecting on his time at the town hall. He sent it to me last week; I should have published it then, but I was on holiday…
They say a week is a long time in politics… I was elected to Tower Hamlets council 8 years ago but it seems like only yesterday!
I’m ‘retiring’ from being a local councillor in Tower Hamlets. We’ve recently moved house, I’ve got a busy day job and with a young family it’s time for someone else to have a go. But it’s with a mixture of pride and sorrow that I look back at my time on the council.
Pride at some of the things we’ve got done. In 2010, I led a scrutiny review into the causes of childhood obesity; the borough had one of the poorest records in the country on this measure. And why should we care? Well because it can lead to a myriad of other illnesses and complications and is one of the key determinants of success, opportunity and health in life. Our key recommendation from that review was the introduction of free school meals for all primary school children in the borough, something that all parties in the council (and the government) are now supporting.
To be frank, it’s not something that I ever thought 8 years ago that I’d be a supporter of. But having led the review and seen the facts, I know it’s something that stacks-up for Tower Hamlets and not just economically.
I worked with councillors from across the chamber to get agreement for the independent review of leaseholder charges. I got the future of the Council owned Henry Moore statue ‘Old Flo’ debated in the chamber and beyond. I’ve exposed waste and held the council to account, from eye-watering housing benefit payments to excessive use of consultants. And I got the council to put up a portrait of the Queen in the town hall, as virtually every other council does – a daily reminder of what good leadership looks like in a building where it is often lacking.
As a Conservative on the council I’m proud of the way that our small team has punched above its weight. It has shifted the debate budget after budget, and I’ve lost count of the number of our initiatives, which, at first were voted down to cries of indignation by the members of other parties, have then been quietly adopted. Examples range from the tens of thousands spent on pot plants in the town hall (scrapped this year), to saving millions from moving out of rented office blocks like Anchorage House (moved out of last year); alongside reductions in contractor spend, reductions in councillors’ allowances and the scrapping of free food for councillors to name but a few.
Sorrow too though. Sorrow at no longer having the privilege of representing Blackwall and Cubitt Town ward and, more widely, the residents of Tower Hamlets. Sorrow at the way certain aspects of politics work in Tower Hamlets. I’ve witnessed the unedifying sight of councillors, elected to represent people suffering some of the worst deprivation in our country, brawling in the council chamber.
Erroneous and unfounded accusations of racism being made – invariably when the debate gets too uncomfortable/accurate for some. And, sorrow that, despite all my, and my Conservative colleagues, hard work, so much more still needs to be done to make Tower Hamlets deliver the services, value for money and transparency deserved by its residents.
During my 8 years I’ve held many roles: deputy leader of the opposition; deputy group leader; chair of health scrutiny; and scrutiny lead for the chief executives department. I’ve also served on many committees and outside bodies. But being a councillor isn’t about collecting job titles. It’s what you get done that really makes a difference.
The things of which I am most proud are the cases where I’ve been able to help people – individuals – the unspoken achievements that make a real difference to people’s lives. Like the housing association who I convinced to let a family stay in their home when they were actually, needlessly in my view, taking them to court to turf them out. Or the lad who got into his first choice school after I pointed out that the council had incorrectly calculated how far he was from the school gate (they’d missed the small matter of a bridge over a dock that just ever so slightly changed the total distance to walk to the school). The alternative school being offered was 4 miles away…Or perhaps the saplings that I got planted on a street that did not have a single tree.
Of course, my 8 year stint is very much a tale of two halves, with the introduction of a directly elected Mayor in 2010. It was a move I was sceptical of at the time, but having been introduced we’ve all had to try to adapt to the new reality. Sadly, the council’s wider structure hasn’t really changed, when it must – full council must now be more about holding the mayor to account, and in that sense needs to work more like the GLA. The reduction in the number of councillors is a step in the right direction and recognises that councillors have less responsibility under a mayoral system but what is the point of Overview and Scrutiny when the Mayor decides he can simply not bother attending?
On a personal note, knowing that I was elected as a Conservative, in an area where it was said for decades that it couldn’t be done, it is with a heavy heart I step aside. I won’t miss the late night meetings and I will enjoy having more time to spend with my family. But I will miss my constituents, the many local community activists I have had the pleasure of working with, and the strong team spirit of my Conservative council colleagues, led by Peter Golds.
Finally, in an era where trust in politicians seems to be at an all time low, it is important to remember that most councillors are there for the right reasons; they work hard and are trying to build a better future. A few are not and they should be exposed but not used to dismiss the positive contributions of the rest. I maybe saying farewell to Tower Hamlets politics, but not to Tower Hamlets. I still work in the borough and after 8 years of being a councillor and many more campaigning in the area, I am sure I’ll be keeping an eye on things for a while to come (and I’ll certainly be following Ted’s blog….).