There appears to be a sudden media blackout on the Rich Mix debt write-off gifted by Mayor John Biggs, and nary a post of previously concerned local bloggers parroting the outcry of Labour members – pressing for Tower Hamlets to wave off the £850k debt with no-questions-asked.
The clamorous drama between Tower Hamlets council and Rich Mix has in an instant become a silent mystery. So quiet that one felt compelled to check that this entire episode of the borough’s history even ever existed.
Ted Jeory, east London’s very own Danger Mouse, wrote an article in 2006 for the East London Advertiser about a leaked report exposing financial problems with Rich Mix. A report he chided was “deemed too confidential and sensitive to be scrutinised in public” – so really, Ted has been documenting developments and conflicts surrounding Rich Mix for almost a decade. Back in 2010, Ted was very skeptical of the arts centre calling it back then the “who’s who of the east London Labour Party” and generally critical of the remit to serve a broad community – as Cllr Denise Jones hoped to attract “the white working class from the Isle of Dogs and the Bengali boys from the Boundary Estate.” Ted observed at the time that Rich Mix was filled with “Shoreditch types” with Apple Macs and lattes – and expressed shock and outrage that the borough still hadn’t claimed the £850k debt owed by Rich Mix and at the time “had gone begging to the council” for more money. Ted concluded that Rich Mix was in a cycle of debt and cash dependency due to “the total lack of proper scrutiny by Labour councillors which caused the mess in the first place.” You can’t fool Danger Mouse.
Almost a complete parallel to our Battle of Tower Hamlets blog entry that documented a confidential report that led to a call-in at the overview and scrutiny meeting with members voicing concern about value to the community and its financial solvency.
Ted U-turned in 2015, writing he changed his mind about Rich Mix: “this is now hipster country and it will eventually spread into the southern stretches of Brick Lane. Maybe it’s better to embrace and accept than be a bunch of King Cnuts.” With this rather meagre rationale of don’t-be-a-spoil-sport combined with utter resignation makes me wonder what happened to the old Danger Mouse?
Even if Ted Jeory made a deal with the devil – since he expressed strongly his feelings against the Tower Hamlets V Rich Mix litigation – where is the jubilant “hurray Biggs saved the day!” blog post? Equally, where are the back-slapping tweets from Labour councillors cheering “woo-hoo we saved Rich Mix!”? Where in the local press is there any announcement of this even happening? Is there no duty to the age-old convention of storytelling to have an ending? As revelatory the story of Lutfur Rahman’s desk was, for local bloggers this surely is second in significance?
Apparently Danger Mouse and his sidekick Ernest Penfold (strange parallel here; people often mistake Mark Baynes for a mole when actually, like Penfold, he’s a hamster) were invited by Cllr Pierce to attend an Overview and Scrutiny meeting to give their opinions on how the council could stop being career fodder for local bloggers.
Speaking of U-turns, Ken Livingstone who once backed the creation of Rich Mix, made a comment on LBC (audio provided) about his disappointment on its outcome and subsequent decision to give £1.5m, he said: “I find it breathtaking because, it started back in 2000, here we are 15 years on and it’s still running up losses”. I suppose you are now wondering why you never heard of this public condemnation from Ken Livingstone on the handling of Rich Mix – join the club.
A rather entitled response from Mayor Biggs, who defended the secrecy of the decision, he said: “there was confidentiality because there was legal actions, which I wanted to stop because I felt they were unnecessary and that’s my right” – perhaps one day Mayor Biggs could educate the rest of us as to why he felt it unnecessary to pursue a debt owed to the community and also why he is giving away more of their money – we shall await to see if we have that right.
A spokesperson from the Independent Group, formerly Tower Hamlets First, Cllr Shahed Ali was also interviewed on LBC and gave this statement, he said: “I have no doubt in my mind that every media outlet out there would have been talking about how Lutfur is literally handing out money to organisations that haven’t even applied for it”.
Organisations that did apply for grants attended workshops earlier this year, seeking advice and information on how to make applications in order to meet requirements for funding. Once their applications were received they were marked against a 10 point criteria, if approved the organisation then receives money in segments and are expected to provide evidence of meeting targets and value for money with quarterly check-ins and reports in order to continue receiving the grant.
Half the applications made for charity grants were rejected for not meeting the criteria, while Rich Mix is awarded £1.5m in a secret document authorised by John Biggs, evading any scrutiny and monitoring from the commissioners. The yearly budget for third sector grants is £3.2m, these include local services such as educational support, lunch clubs for the elderly, improving employability and advice centres. This means that Rich Mix has received almost half of this years budget without applying for funding through commissioners at the council who oversee the grant allocation process.
One of the stipulations made for the allocation of funds is: “the grants should not include a profit element. Grant agreements should reinforce that payments are made on an “as cost” basis and do not include profit.” Without any scrutiny and best value applied to Rich Mix, there is no certainty that Rich Mix will meet this criteria. With half the number of lunch club applications denied, those that were agreed will be under the watchful eye of the commissioners, as stated in the Commissioner Decision Report: “There will need to be some negotiation around the outcomes with some of the providers which will be a condition of grant and robustly monitored.” As no evaluation of Rich Mix’s business plan and community strategy has been made, it is a guess game where the money will be spent and with no quarterly business reports handed over, no one will even know.
On the bright side, in a full council meeting Mayor Biggs admitted to not frequenting the Rich Mix centre on the basis that he isn’t much of a “luvvy”. So at least we can be rest assured that this decision is an entirely selfless act to serve only the interests of his Labour chums.