Over the past few months Labour councillors have been working hard to scrutinise and challenge Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s proposed changes to the budget for Tower Hamlets Council. This budget was first published just before Christmas. Council officers now say the authority’s income is going to be higher than originally anticipated prior to last May’s elections, and so they have allowed significant additional spending – some of which is on services and some of which is to cover the extra costs of inflation the council is incurring. It has been examined by the Overview & Scrutiny Committee and now goes to the Full Council meeting later this week for a final decision.
When John Biggs first became Mayor after Lutfur Rahman’s removal by the Election Court in 2015, Tower Hamlets Council was in turmoil. Unanswered questions over the award of grants and the disposal of council assets had persuaded the Government to send in independent Commissioners to oversee decision-making, including of the council’s Budget. Against a backdrop of continuing cuts to our funding by Government ministers, it took John’s team time to right the ship financially. That meant making savings to the budget, though as I have argued here before, some of the cuts to frontline services were not necessary.
Since John’s defeat, Labour councillors have been out listening to residents across Tower Hamlets. Many have told us they worry that the Coronavirus pandemic has undermined their children’s educational attainment and employment prospects. Others highlight the problems in accessing some council services. Almost everyone mentions the financial difficulties local people are facing in the current cost of living crisis, with the costs of food, energy, rent and interest rates all rocketing and the Government failing to provide the support needed. We actually put forward a plan last summer for Tower Hamlets Council to provide extra help those at the sharp end of this crisis, but the Mayor rejected it.
The budget now put forward by Mayor Rahman proposes some good measures, for example on education and social care. However, it also allocates £1.4 million for 27 new members of staff in the Mayor’s own office, including political advisors, and £114,000 for Councillors from his own “Aspire” party to receive personalised diary support in their role Chairing Committees which usually only meet once a month. If these ill-judged plans are agreed, nearly £5 million will be wasted on expanding his office during this term – equivalent to an extra 1 per cent on Council Tax bills.
At the same time, Aspire is also proposing to spend £8.5 million a year more on youth services, by recreating the “in-house” council team. Labour support expanding youth services – our kids need a place to develop outside of home and school. However, we also recall the evidence of poor performance at some of the council’s youth clubs and malpractice by a minority of the team that was revealed by independent investigators after Mayor Rahman’s removal from office previously. The need to ensure probity and value for money to local taxpayers is why we believe there must be a more controlled and accountable approach to this expansion of youth services.
By deleting the expansion of the Mayor’s personal staff and adopting a phased approach to youth services, Labour believes Tower Hamlets Council should fund the following instead:
- A £1.3 million package of additional financial support for those residents hardest hit by the current cost of living crisis
- A 1.65 million package to increase financial support, tailored tuition and advice/guidance for children and young people whose education was disrupted by covid
- A £1 million package to reopen the former One Stop Shops at Roman Road and Chrisp Street market and have more staff answering phones/emails at the Contact Centre;
- A sum of £350,000 to enhance democratic scrutiny of spending and performance in the Town Hall, including of housing, waste services and grants.
Labour’s amendment also calls on the Mayor to scale back his eye-watering 7 per cent increase in rents for council tenants and reinstate £15 million investment in new security doors, double-glazing, front doors and estate improvements that has mysteriously disappeared from the Housing Capital Programme. It also demands the reinstatement of the long-awaited refurbishment of George Green Secondary School on the Isle of Dogs and improvements to Oaklands School in Bethnal Green, along with the £6 million revamp of the much-loved Bancroft Local History Library, all of which have been dropped from the Capital Programme provisionally agreed when John Biggs was Mayor.
At the end of the day, we don’t have the number of councillors needed to force these amendments through. But we hope the debate in the new Council Chamber will persuade the Mayor and those around him to reconsider his flawed approach and accept the changes needed to correct it.
Councillor Marc Francis
Bow East (Labour)
Member of Housing & Regeneration Scrutiny Sub Committee, and Overview & Scrutiny Committee.