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Archive for January, 2016

Ahead of Wednesday’s full council meeting, this is a guest post by Cllr Oliur Rahman, leader of the 12-strong Tower Hamlets Independent Group (formerly known as Tower Hamlets First). Discuss…

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Much has been made of the dawn of a new kind of politics.

With the bitterness of last year behind us, it is our hope that we can work constructively across parties to put Tower Hamlets first.

Our group would be the first to admit that Mayor Biggs’ administration has had some successes, based on the Mayor’s ability to look beyond party politics and continue to implement much of former Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s progressive agenda. Mayor Biggs is not the only one to admit that Tower Hamlets was generally a “well-run borough”, as he put it, under his opponent.

The Municipal Journal, the National Association of Care Catering, Keep Britain Tidy and a range of professional bodies have celebrated the former Mayor’s legacy – while figures across the spectrum as diverse as an Anglican canon, the Conservative former political editor of the Spectator and centre-left Guardian writer Zoe Williams have cast doubt on the merit of the court judgment that saw Lutfur barred from office.

We must now move forward and this new age of conciliation has seen some big wins for the people of Tower Hamlets. Mayor Biggs has defended our administration’s landmark education grants for young people. After some regrettably costly delays, he has gone ahead with our plans for the regeneration of Whitechapel, the creation of a new civic centre and a multi-faith burial ground that between them will create 3,500 new homes and 5,000 jobs while preserving dedicated space for culture and small business.

Biggs is pushing ahead with plans for landlord licensing, school places and new social and affordable housing developed by our previous administration, along with our proposed policy of mayoral question times. The current administration have developed our plans with an Affordability Commission to investigate what kind of genuinely affordable housing we should provide – which we welcome, but believe should not have property developers and social landlords with poor service records sitting on it while no opposition spokespeople are invited onto the panel.

Mayor Biggs’ drive for transparency is also an important one, which can now progress freely in a less contentious environment. His Transparency Protocol and whistleblowing procedure will facilitate a more open culture at senior management level – but he would be well advised to go further. The lack of transparency over a grant to the Rich Mix of nearly a million pounds, made by executive order behind closed doors with little real rationale rings dangerously of patronage politics.

 

His decision to scrap East End Life, again by a secretive executive order and in spite of overwhelming support from members of the public for the paper, is also questionable. There seems little other way currently for Tower Hamlets to communicate with vulnerable and digitally excluded residents about the services they should be aware of. Setting up a Transparency Commission chaired by his own aide John Pierce was also questionable.

In the Mayor’s defence, he, like all politicians, has powerful interests pressuring him – in his own party, in Town Hall politics, and in the form of Eric Pickles’ commissioners who were recently accused of a complete lack of transparency by a leading voluntary sector organisation. We hope that in spite of all that he is able to stick to the pledges he was elected on: getting tough on waste, creating a more open council, delivering decent housing and strengthening our communities. There are many things we disagree on, but those aims we can get behind.

Looking ahead, the first budget by Mayor John Biggs is imminent. The Independent Group has consistently opposed cuts to the most vulnerable, particularly those which affect frontline services and increase charges for critical services or to succumb to “false” savings just to balance the books without considering the overall impact and wider picture.

Mayor’s budget proposals include cuts in funding for incontinence laundry service for the most vulnerable and elderly, youth services, free home care for the elderly, voluntary sector grants, children’s school history trips to Gorsefield, bursaries for university students and PGCE training for BAME teachers, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), East End Life, introducing new charges for adult care and deleting the posts of 10 THEOs (environment/waste cleaning), as part of the Mayor’s £18m of cuts now, with £63m cuts over three years. We feel this approach lacks a vision and is simply managerial.

Independent Group highlighted this, by way of just one example, at the Scrutiny meeting on January 4, that to get rid of 10 THEOs would not contribute to the cleaner streets that were among the Mayor’s top priorities. The large volume of food outlets, small businesses and markets that are a core part of the local economy generate a considerable deal of waste, which coupled with fly-tipping, graffiti and other associated issues present a considerable challenge to delivering cleaner and greener streets.

If the Mayor and his colleagues decide to cut Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMH) services, alongside cuts to youth services, it is likely to both exacerbate the situation and create issues. Deprivation is often linked to poor mental health, and in Tower Hamlets, one in two children live in poverty, so it is vital to provide safety and therefore continuity with CAMH services. Speaking to people who work in youth services we know they provide support and safe spaces, which contribute to a young person’s sense of wellbeing and provides the opportunity to have the life-skills needed to prosper.

Unemployment is another burgeoning problem in Tower Hamlets. Canary Wharf provides thousands of jobs but predominantly filled by finance specialists from outside the borough. Therefore we believe that any cuts to the current system of paying wages to those on internships and bursaries for teacher training courses from BAME groups is following the Tory government suit by forcing the poor to disproportionally shoulder the cuts. Public sector jobs, such as teaching, provides a sixth of the borough’s jobs and therefore a system that provides opportunities for citizens to be a part of the workforce is worth protecting.

It is well documented that cuts to youth services, as proposed by Mayor Biggs, coincides with a rise in crime and antisocial behaviour – coupled with this administration’s proposal to remove the safety net for the police budget – will undoubtedly create disastrous results. Safety in the community is not a privilege but a necessity, and a child lost to the criminal justice system is both costly and tragic.

miliband-2.jpgIt would be remiss of me not to talk about the proverbial elephant in the room. Many have speculated we are simply looking for a route back into a renewed Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn. This is nothing new: most of our group were Labour people exiled from the party either by the disastrous decision to go to war in Iraq, or by the rigging of a mayoral selection in Labour that even election judge Richard Mawrey agreed was indefensible. We were drawn from all ranks of Labour – Lutfur was a Progress member and David Miliband supporter at the time of his expulsion!

But we are here first and foremost to serve the people of this borough – and when the current administration is considering weathering austerity with cuts to teaching bursaries, library closures and the sacking of council staff who keep our streets clean (following a pledge to get tough on waste), it is our duty to stand up for residents’ interests. We have a crippling housing crisis, severe pockets of poverty and a range of social problems that we have a responsibility to help fix. That’s what we were elected for – and in 2016, we hope to be able to perform that duty constructively and positively across civil society organisations, political parties and communities.

May I take this opportunity to wish your readers and residents a peaceful, prosperous and happy 2016.

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