Why the Poplar Rates Rebellion is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago

1921 Poplar Rates Strike mural, Hale Street London E14

Bow East Councillor Marc Francis writes on the Tower Hamlets Budget for 2021 -22 which is due to go before the Council on Thurs 4th March 2021:

“Next month marks the centenary of the legendary Poplar Rates Rebellion, when Labour councillors led by future Party Leader, George Lansbury refused to set a budget that imposed an unfair burden on local rate-payers.  An economic recession driven by the end of the First World War and an influenza pandemic, left many of Bow and Poplar’s residents out of work and reliant on locally-based relief.  Wealthier parts of London, insulated from mass unemployment, had no need to raise their own rates so far to meet such costs.  

“Lansbury and his colleagues rightly felt that the war, epidemic and recession hadn’t started the East End, and so they objected to its rate-payers being forced to bear the burden of bills their equivalents in the West End weren’t facing.  With the overwhelming support of the local community, Lansbury and his colleagues stood firm, and while thirty councillors were gaoled, the Government quickly rushed through legislation providing subsidy arrangements to equalise the rates in differing communities.  The Poplar rebels had won.

“Fast forward 100 years and Tower Hamlets councillors are now faced with decisions with strong echoes of this illustrious past as we set next year’s budget.  Everyone knows the costs of social care for our elderly and disabled population is rising inexorably.  This needs a national solution.  And yet, successive Chancellors from George Osborne, to Philip Hammond to Rishi Sunak have focussed on “allowing” councils to meet those rising costs through an Adult Social Care “precept” on Council Tax.  In fact, they have an expectation we will impose that extra tax.  

“Poorer areas, with lots of older people or disabled people are disadvantaged by this approach.  It’s exactly what Lansbury and his colleagues stood against all those years ago.  Tower Hamlets is one of those areas.  But it is fair to say Tower Hamlets is not the place it was a hundred years ago.  It is a place of rich as well as poor, and an awful lot of people in the middle as well.  And we have many businesses too.  That means, almost uniquely, we get central government grant as well as having a majority of our residents paying Council Tax and thousands of companies paying Business Rates.

“In practice, what this means is that we are now one of the luckier places.  A good example of that is that two weeks after Labour councillors agreed a set of budget proposals – savings and new investments – for public consultation, we discovered HM Treasury was actually giving £10 million more than we were advised it would.  The council’s Overview & Scrutiny Committee has looked closely at this and thinks it might not be a one-off.  Officers significantly under-estimated how much we would get for all the new flats being built here.  It thinks their assumptions for the following two years might be wrong too.  And it questions this money being put into “Reserves” for a rainy day when so many of our constituents are feeling the cold Covid rain right now.

“This matters because the Mayor’s supposed need to make further savings is based on these assumptions. Those savings include closing some libraries and reducing opening times in others, closing bespoke day centres for disabled people, reducing services for those with mental health problems, and cutting back community safety services.  There are also significant increases in some fees and charges and the overall 5 per cent increase in Council Tax proposed at this stage, which coming on top of similar increases over the past few years will be tough for many residents.

“To be fair, Cabinet members and my colleagues have already pushed back on and stopped even more unpalatable cuts.  But the Overview & Scrutiny Committee feels the Mayor and his Cabinet can do better again.  That’s why we are pressing for several of the most swinging cuts to frontline services to be scaled back or even postponed for at least the next year.  The council needs to have meaningful consultation with those service users and the community as a whole and that simply can’t happen in this locked-down virtual world.

“Most of all though, Tower Hamlets Council needs to look beyond its own challenges and see the acute financial hardship many of our residents are experiencing.  That was the case long before Covid.  But the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated those pressures.  That’s why the Overview & Scrutiny Committee is also calling for a big boost to the Borough’s Resident Support Scheme of cash help to those in serious financial difficulty and grants to the local food-banks offering practical support to those who would otherwise be going hungry.  I’m sure there are other similar projects that could and should be supported.

“These are incredibly difficult times.  But a hundred years on, a Budget along these lines would be a fitting tribute to the memory to the Poplar Rates rebels whose shoulders we all stand on as local councillors.”

Councillor Marc Francis, Bow East.

Minnie Lansbury was one of the Poplar Council rebels gaoled in 1921 for refusing to levy full rates in the poverty-stricken area.


  1. It is good know this event and the people will not be forgotten. My father voted Conservative all his life yet his two top political heroes of all time were George Lansbury and Clement Atlee because of their good work in the East End.

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