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Archive for August, 2017

The following is a guest post by Mayor John Biggs who wants to put his side of the argument on the youth sport funding row. It follows two previous guest posts (here and here) by Chris Dunne of the Tower Hamlets Youth Sports Foundation whose future is under threat due to funding problems.

This guest post is interesting because whether you agree with the mayor or not, you can see a logical and reasoned approach to decision-making – an insight never seen with his predecessor, Lutfur Rahman.

Doesn’t mean he’s right, though.

For those desperate for more politics, gossip, accusations of sexism and just general bitching, as well as the serious policy issues like this, take heart – I will report back soon.

 

By Mayor John Biggs

Tower Hamlets mayorI should start by welcoming Ted back to the world of Tower Hamlets politics: your absence has been noticed and it is good to see you return to the fold. In a healthy democracy people should always feel able to question, quiz and disagree with decisions politicians make, I have no doubt you will do all three and keep us on our toes.

I know you ran a post from Tower Hamlets Youth and Sports Foundation (THYSF) and I wanted to set out my case for the decision the Council has made as a right of reply.

The 2012 Games promised a lot and whilst the Olympics have delivered some incredible economic regeneration results it’s fair to say the sports legacy from the Games has fallen below expectations.

This is in no small part due to decisions by the Coalition Government to slash funding to school sports and abolish the ring-fenced funding given to School Sport Partnerships like the Tower Hamlets Youth Sports Foundation.

Contrary to some assertions Tower Hamlets Council is not cutting the THYSF. It is not a council-funded service but we have provided them with emergency funding when they faced budget challenges. In fact over the past year we have provided around £150,000 to help cover their deficit..

The problem facing THYSF is that they have always been primarily funded by the schools they provide services to; aside from the small amount of funding the council gets from Sport England which we gave to THYSF to support their programmes.

As Chris Dunne rightly stated in his first article Michael Gove’s scrapping of funding for Sports Partnerships made this model far harder to work. The decision over following years to squeeze school budgets tighter and tighter made things more problematic for THYSF as school funding has reduced.

As a result the THYSF ended the 2016/17 year with a deficit of around £150k.

Valuing the service THYSF provides, the council agreed to underwrite those costs but asked that THYSF produce a business plan that addressed the financial concerns and demonstrated that THYSF can cover all its expenditure from the income it receives, whether by way of the agreements, called SLAs, with the schools to provide services, or from community activities from which additional income can be raised.

In addition to the financial support provided by the council, we offered officer support to better understand the challenges facing THYSF.

This work forecast a further deficit of up to £190k later this year and highlighted the overall challenge facing THYSF, that its costs are fixed, staffing etc, but its income fluctuates significantly.

Furthermore, the analysis found that school subscriptions have been falling for the past three years which has resulted in reducing income at the same time as there has been an increase in the charity’s cost base.

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Chris Dunne, of the Tower Hamlets Youth Sport Foundation

In 2012 I understand there were 87 schools buying into THYSF services. In 2017 there are only around 37 with Service agreements with THYSF. That has hit THYSF’s income despite costs staying broadly stable. I appreciate that THYSF dispute these figures and may have others paying for some of their services via other means, but clearly they are facing an existential crisis because of reduced income.

I cannot speak for why schools chose to withdraw from THYSF however it is clear Government cuts have made school budgets far tighter over that time.

Whilst THYSF are not a council service, we have supported them by covering their deficit last year.

The Council has not withdrawn any of its existing funding sources, nor were we proposing to. In fact we have given THYSF more money than ever over the past year to give them time to come up with a new business plan.

Currently the organisation’s staff are formally employed by Langdon Park School. Given the increasing concerns about THYSF’s finances the school no longer wish to host them as they could end up liable for any deficit.

Sadly, we are left with limited options.

Why doesn’t the Council just fund THYSF?

The answer put forward by some that the council just take over THYSF and make them a council department is fraught with risk for taxpayers – it would mean assimilating a service with staffing costs in the region of £600,000-650,000 a year. It would mean adopting a service for which funding does not exist in our budgets and it would not be fair on existing employees who are facing tough choices and restructures.

Central Government cuts mean we have to save 1 in every 6 pounds we currently spend – that’s £58m over this and the coming years with yet more cuts looming on the horizon.

It may be easy for other political groups to play politics about this issue; however my administration has had to clear up the mismanagement of the past at the same time as facing devastating cuts from Central Government.

There is also an urban myth circulating that the council spends £3.8m on sports already and all we need to do is reallocate some of that. This just simply is not true. The actual budget for our sports team is around £1.1m which achieves excellent value for money providing services such as:

  • Our weekly Disability Sport Programme enabling 10,000 mainly young people with disabilities participate in activities at Mile End Park Leisure Centre.
  • Community programmes in the borough’s parks including a free health & fitness programme targeting approximately 2,000 inactive people, the majority of which have been women and girls.
  • Our Summer Sports Programme in Parks, leisure centres and the community which last year saw over 13,000 people take part in a diverse range of sports and activities for young people ranging from athletics and BMX/cycling to canoeing and kayaking.
  • Programmes like the Young@Heart for the Over 50’s, The Women and Girls Swim Programme, Sport4Women and Disability sport programme, free swimming on Fridays and Saturdays and under 16 swimming for just £1. These all make sporting activities accessible and affordable for residents of all ages.
  • On top of that our Sports team has generated over £4 million in external funding from organisations such as London Marathon Trust, Sport England, The Premier League and FA Facilities Fund. Without this work, the improvements to the borough’s sporting infrastructure, particularly those in our parks, would cease. The Stepney Green Astro-turf, the refurbishment of the borough’s tennis courts, the replacement of the astro-turf at John Orwell Sports Centre and Mile End Stadium, the resurfacing of the athletics track at Mile End Stadium. All were made possible by the council’s investment in sports.

Much of this work would be at risk if we cut funding from the current service in order to reallocate it to THYSF. These are improvements which benefit the whole community including our young people.

What we are planning to do

THYSF’s future is in their own hands. The council has supported them for a year to give them extra time but we cannot do so forever as we just do not have the funds, much like the schools who are choosing to no longer buy their services.

Like any organisation THYSF must produce a plan which balances its income with its costs. They have to do so now as Langdon Park School have decided to  end the relationship with THYSF.  The Foundation either have to choose to employ its staff directly or to close.

It is clear that Government cuts have made it far harder for schools to afford the THYSF service; particularly if similar organisations offer it for less money. That is a decision for schools. It is a challenge that is facing schools across the country.

I have said all along that we would support THYSF to step out on their own should they wish to set up as a new social enterprise. They would still need a solid business plan and the council would probably commission them to run some of the services they offer. That is why the council is funding a consultant to work with THYSF to help them work up this kind of proposal. What we cannot do is take their organisation into the council without the finances to pay for it.

Should THYSF close, the council will use the funding we receive from Sport England, which we currently give to THYSF, to help us step-in and support the running of the inter-borough and School Games. Similarly, we will continue to support the borough’s participation in the London Youth Games, as we are committed to ensuring young people do not lose out on these opportunities.

We would also ensure schools are offered a core package of sports by other high-quality providers including specialist cricket, hockey, cycling, football and other sports in conjunction with national sport governing bodies and organisations like Middlesex Cricket, England Hockey and professional football clubs who run these programmes in many other areas. It is however important that we act quickly, to ensure our young people have continuing support in the new school year.

I have considered the information that THYSF have sent through and wrote to Chris on 3rd August setting out the support we have offered at each stage of the process. Whilst I sympathise with THYSF’s position, it simply isn’t the case that without them there would be no sport provision for young people. We have worked with them to support and underwrite their costs over the past year.

I also understand why in times of financial challenges Langdon Park School view their current position of directly employing all the THYSF staff as unsustainable. I would be more than happy to see THYSF spin themselves off as a charitable enterprise, and I have been clear the council would support that. What I cannot do is cut other vital services the council provides in order to save a model which has hit financial challenges and will continue to do so, as a result of schools choosing to pull out from funding the organisation.

Chris is entirely right that, with a few sad exceptions, politicians don’t go into public life to ‘do bad things for their electors.’ This is a tricky situation and not one which is anywhere near as simple as some have tried to make out but like Chris I believe in the power of sports to transform lives. That is why whatever happens to THYSF we will continue to ensure that young people in our borough have the opportunities to participate in high quality sports and inter-borough and London-wide games.

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The following is another guest post by Chris Dunne, the former head of Langdon Park School and now fighting to save the acclaimed Tower Hamlets Youth Sport Foundation. His first post on this blog can be read here. In this article he attacks Labour councillors for their failure to attend a public meeting on the issue. One, Cllr Abdul Mukit (MBE, lest we forget) – the cabinet member for sport – was apparently sitting in a cafe around the corner while it was going on. Given his record of claiming questionable expenses at Spitalfields Housing Association, I’m not surprised.

[As an aside, and in other news, Rachael Saunders, the deputy mayor, has quit. She, like Josh Peck, Amy Whitelock-Gibbs and Shiria Khatun, has also decided her time is now up in Tower Hamlets politics. None of them are standing for re-election next May. And these were the sensible ones. Mess? Certainly. More on that in a separate post.]

By Chris Dunne (pictured)

governance-sub_01When Mayor John Biggs was asked in the council meeting on July 19 if he had a seconder for his motion – to dismantle the Tower Hamlets Youth Sport programme – I thought he was just being facetious when he claimed, “I think I’ve got 20 seconders”. Given the deafening silence coming from the ranks of Labour councillors, both then and since, it seems he wasn’t kidding.

As a former headteacher I have always tried to behave well in public, but the shameful way the matter was subsequently treated in the Chamber I believe fully justified my telling the Mayor and his ‘seconders’ on the Labour benches that they should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

It wasn’t the mayor’s fault that council rules barred councillors from asking me questions, but he certainly took full advantage of it. With no possibility of our countering his statements, Trustees and staff of the Foundation were forced to sit and listen to the mayor grossly distort the truth about the Tower Hamlets Youth Sport Foundation and in many cases to say things that were totally untrue.

Which is why we organised a public meeting and debate on the evening of Sunday July 30. Everyone, especially the mayor, was invited. The Opposition parties were well represented. Cllr Rabina Khan and Cllr Ohid Ahmed both attended and spoke very supportively of the programme, as did Elaine Bagshaw, representing the Liberal Democrats. The meeting was very well attended, including by many youngsters, and dealt exhaustively with all the issues. It had been scheduled to finish after an hour and a half at 7.30pm, but instead ran over two hours, when we had to call a halt only because the Foundation’s manager Chris Willetts and our Cricket Officer, Jahid Ahmed, had to leave to take a busload of youngsters to the West Midlands for a cricket residential.

You can imagine how disappointed everyone was that not one single Labour councillor thought it was important enough to attend the meeting. The mayor had had to pull out during the day because of family commitments, but not one of his ‘seconders’ was apparently ready or willing to take his place and defend the Labour decision to dismantle the borough’s youth sport programme. Not even Cllr Abdul Mukit, in whose own ward the meeting was taking place and who is the Cabinet Lead Councillor for sport!

I have to say I share the outrage felt by some Labour Party members who told me they encountered Cllr Mukit in a café round the corner from the meeting when they were on their way home. For not one Labour councillor to turn up was, I believe, simply disrespectful to the thousands and thousands of young people who are going to have their life opportunities severely curtailed by the mayor’s disgraceful decision, a decision publicly supported by all Labour councillors in the Chamber on July 19.

It is simply not good enough either for them to hide behind the excuse that the meeting would have been used to play party politics.

Abul Hasnath, who presents a community affairs programme on a British-Bangladeshi TV channel, independently chaired the meeting. He and I both asked everyone to focus their contributions on the provision of life opportunities for young people (many of whom were present to help them do just that) rather than on personalities or parties.

I made a point of saying that THYSF has operated under two administrations, two mayors, three chief executives, and very many directors/officers. I said clearly that I did not believe politicians of any party, nationally or locally, stood for election in order to do bad things for their electors.

I also specifically said that I did not believe John Biggs would deliberately say things that were untrue. As a hard-working mayor he relies on many people to give him accurate information about issues like this. I said that somewhere along the way he must have been given the inaccurate impressions referred to in our evidence folder or told things that were not true and, understandably, may have believed them to be true.

We have given the mayor and every councillor a fat folder of hard copies of the evidence to demonstrate the distortions and untruths I spoke of earlier.

In essence we are saying to the mayor and his councillors that:

  1. He was totally wrong to claim there has been a serious decline in the number of schools subscribing to our service. We are working with almost 60 schools in the borough, not the 34 the mayor claimed.
  2. The Mayor’s claim that we have been running deficits (plural) is flatly contradicted by the 4 years (out of 5) that we in fact ran small surpluses, which we have itemised year by year.
  3. The Mayor’s claim that the Trustees of the Foundation had refused to produce a Business Plan is untrue. We submitted a lengthy and detailed Business Plan, but this was rejected by the council.
  4. The Mayor claimed in the Chamber to have an ‘alternative plan’, and all the Labour councillors supported it. No one has yet seen this plan, or at least if they have they haven’t shared it with us. It certainly won’t be based on a borough sports strategy, because the only one of those that exists we wrote ourselves. 

 

There Is Still A Way To Solve This Problem – If There Is The Political Will

It is important to note at this point that the clock is ticking pretty fast. The redundancy process is already under way –  conducted unsurprisingly by Council officials at the Town Hall, despite the mayor’s repeated attempts to hide behind the excuse that “it’s the school that’s making them redundant”.

There is however, despite the lateness of the hour, an honourable way forward if the mayor and his councillors want to grasp it.

The mayor has repeatedly claimed he had appointed a consultant to help us write a Business Plan. That of course was not true. What is true is that both I and another Trustee had separately written to him to ask him to do exactly that. Neither of us received any reply to this request.

The consultant the mayor is referring to has however now had the opportunity over the last two months to learn exactly how our operation runs and how it is financed and would as a result be in a very good position to give such sound advice to the mayor.

In a face-to-face meeting since the Council meeting, I asked the Mayor to honour that original claim of his ‘retrospectively’, by asking the consultant to advise him directly on what he regards are the feasible options, if any, for saving the core of our youth sport programme. I am pleased to say that he firmly agreed to do just that. We now await confirmation that this has happened and to consider the outcome.

What is already clear of course is the advice of another consultant, commissioned by the council, has given on the question of youth sport provision in Tower Hamlets. Asked to compare expenditure on youth sport with other similar boroughs, his report said (my emphasis)

Local authority finance outturns for sports-related functions suggest that LBTH maintains expenditure comparable to other boroughs. Given that as of 2012 responsibilities for delivery of youth-focused sport programmes has been distributed across LBTH and the newly formed THYSF, benchmarking data suggests therefore that LBTH has relatively higher spend for the more limited sports functions it delivers (primary focus of adult sport and physical activity) when compared to other boroughs.

This context suggests that where there is any amendment to functions and budgets for delivery of youth and adult community sport functions across LBTH and THYSF, consideration should be made of the apparent relative high spend on a more limited sport remit compared to other boroughs – and therefore future delivery should consider appropriate allocation of funding to community work as currently delivered by THYSF. Future delivery may therefore be through either taking back functions or commissioning services as appropriate.

Or to put it even more simply, “you spend most of the money you do spend on sport on adults, because you have devolved responsibility for youth sport to THYSF, and if that organisation doesn’t exist you will need to either start doing it and paying for it yourselves or you will have to pay someone else to do it for you”.

My question to the mayor is a simple one – about value for money, or ‘bang for your buck’ as the Americans would have it. It’s this:

“Since this issue will cost the Council whatever happens, why not spend the money positively, attempting to save a hugely popular and highly successful organisation, rather than waste it negatively on staff redundancies, giving money back to schools that they have already paid for this financial year, and then trying to provide, and pay for, a third-rate patching up exercise after you’ve watched it die?”

That wouldn’t be getting value for money for borough residents. It’d be hugely wasting it. And people like me would be reminding everyone of that – at every opportunity and right up to the next elections.

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