“The common good is the aspiration of all of us” – Jeremy Corbyn

‘Prioritise excellent public services to deliver cleaner streets, better schools and reduced anti-social behaviour’ – John Biggs’ pledge during 2015 mayoral election

Attack dogs Cllr Rachel Saunders & Cllr John Pierce

What with the Tory sent commissioners overseeing operations alongside their appointed Chief Executive, Will Tuckley, (£200k per annum) it is hard to see whether Mayor Biggs has any influence on the Council at all. The cuts to public services in the latest budget shows compliance to the Conservative government austerity line. We know Biggs’ party leader Jeremy Corbyn is against cuts, but perhaps Corbyn isn’t the man who he is trying to please, and after Biggs took Rachel Saunders to meet Conservative MP and Secretary of State Greg Clark (why not Deputy Mayor Sirajul Islam?), with still no invitation from Mayor Biggs for Corbyn to visit, it does pull into question whose side are they on?

Tower Hamlets Labour have made a budget that will see redundancies, cuts to front line services, a reduction in employment opportunities previously made for impoverished and minority groups, a reduction in children’s health and education services, an end to burial subsidy services, cuts to elderly care and abolishing entire funding for Police officers.

How will John Biggs deliver cleaner streets when 10 environment officers are made redundant?

Is cutting £4.3m from Children Services, that will likely see the closure of Queen Mary Nursery, bettering schools?

Is taking £270k from Police conducive to reducing anti-social behaviour?

It is perplexing to try and understand Biggs’ politics when on the 22 February he put out a press release from his office as member of GLA City and East (his second job), complaining that the London mayor is stretching Tower Hamlets Police force into neighbouring areas, he wrote:

“The Mayor’s cuts (Boris Johnson) have meant neighbourhood police teams in Tower Hamlets have already lost 224 uniformed officers since 2010.”

What is more baffling about the budget is the unnecessary spending and lack of initiatives to raise money, as pointed out by Tower Hamlets Independent Group’s (THIG ) alternative budget, where they note that £140k on fireworks is far too much, especially when they are cutting £20k on burial subsidies, taking £50k from school trips and £41k from incontinence laundry services. The council itself owns properties and yet they’ve set aside £20k for hiring external venues, not to mention the £100k kept for catering when hosting events. How can we as a society celebrate festivities without insuring the wellbeing of everyone?

The worst of Biggs and his cabinet’s budget are the cuts to Child, Adolescent and Mental Health Services and cuts to Social Care and Learning Disability care users, our truly most vulnerable citizens. Perhaps children, the elderly and the incapacitated are not pulling their weight enough, and therefore until they have the get-up-and-go to start paying their way, don’t deserve services like everyone else.

From the £71m Lutfur Rahman kept in reserves to counter government cuts, John Biggs is using £25 million and still planning to cut £17 million of services on top of £4 million that he has already signed off. This was brought up by Hugo Pierre who petitioned at the budget council meeting, to not make any cuts to public services. In order to avoid discussing this point, the most vicious Labour councillors took the opportunity to attack Pierre for not winning local elections as a TUSC candidate (watch video).

When Biggs was campaigning for mayor, there was a lot of talk about Lutfur Rahman’s advisors and personal staff – where as Biggs has kept £605k for his office and advisors, recently appointed Head of Marketing for £100k, as well as an extra £25k for publicity. Which brings us to the scrapping of East End Life – how are the council supposed to inform Tower Hamlets residents of changes to services? Are they expecting the whole of Tower Hamlets to attend council meetings? Not everyone has the internet, nor the inclination to find out information that should be sent to them. This certainly does not feel like transparency, without the paper the workings of the council is practically invisible.

Cllr Oliur Rahman THIG leader

An alternative budget was presented by THIG which had found savings, fund raising opportunities and reserves meaning no one has to have their services cut, or a 4% tax increase for that matter. This might be hard to believe with all the scaremongering out there about government debt but rest assured that the Chief Financial Officer at Tower Hamlets found THIG’s budget proposal to be ‘cost neutral’ and the Monitoring Officer wrote that the budget ‘contains savings and spending proposals which balance each other out and consequently achieves the requirement for a balanced budget.’

With so much resources available to the council for innovation, planning and improvement for the future, the budget decided on for Tower Hamlets is at best uninspiring and at worst a reversal of every progress it had going.

The Richer Mix

Jurassic_World - Bengali

At last week’s council meeting, Tower Hamlets First was blamed for causing the PwC report that cost the borough over £1million. One wonders whether they should do a “Best Value Inspection” on their own inspection, as to whether it was in the best interests of the borough to pay for it – however in the current climate, who has £1million to throw away? Apparently, Tower Hamlets council does.
Just over ten days after John Biggs won the mayoral election he published a restricted document titled “101 Rich Mix Litigation”, all 18 pages of this decision unavailable to view by the public and councillors. No rationale, no value for money and no business report. Since a date has been set for the litigation to go ahead on July 20th, without knowing what is inside this document means if Biggs has decided to not continue legal proceedings, then the £850k owed by Rich Mix will be written off.
The Independent group have called-in the mysterious contents of the decision, and an Overview and Scrutiny meeting will take place on July 7th – although all they will be able to do is challenge the secrecy of it. As we know the chair of the OSC is Labour Cllr John Pierce – whose ward, Weavers, is where Rich Mix lies. What with the very conception of Rich Mix pertaining to the Labour Group, it could be said that it is highly contentious for Biggs to be secretive about his decision, and for scrutiny to be handled by his comrade.
On the lead up to the mayoral election, London Labour published this (alongside a pretty outdated picture of Biggs *snort):

“Labour candidate John Biggs has today committed to putting openness and transparency at the heart of his campaign to be the new Mayor of Tower Hamlets – saying for too long, people have been ‘pushed out of the decision making process.’”

Rich Mix initially set out to be a cross-cultural hub, attracting all members of the community to come together in their mutual appreciation for arts and culture. What it has achieved in reality is a cinema that plays mainstream films, a bar with live music and a cafe. There are art pieces that line the walls on your way to see Jurassic World, so it’s sort of an ambient art experience.
Rich Mix has made an information pack, seeking to appoint 2 board members for their governing board, claiming “We are going through an exciting period of growth”. Looking at their turnover or £2.7m and net assets of £15.2m, it seems that they have established a good business model. They do also provide work spaces for local creatives and rehearsal rooms for musicians – in short, hipsters. Not to say there is anything wrong with that, it is clear that Rich Mix has helped emerging artists and it’s not easy to serve the interests of a broad group of people.

An arts centre that serves the interests of another group of people, is the Kobi Nazrul Centre, as it says online: “the council’s flagship Bengali arts and cultural centre”. Looking for their annual turnover isn’t available, but their net assets are £1.5k. It may not be a business, but not all community value should be measured by money in crude terms.
Tower Hamlets Labour group proposed at this years budget meeting a £100k reduction of funding for the Kobi Nazrul Centre. It appears that Tower Hamlets Labour group are not only seeking to remove funding from a genuine community arts centres but are bank rolling a flourishing business.

Without any information as to why this decision has been made, it means that other council funded services, like Kobi Nazrul Centre, have no understanding as to why Rich Mix gets preference; nor can the opposition contest it.

Come on you reds!

This week’s council meeting was a hot event, rammed with evangelical Labour supporters hooting and applauding the end of sentences. Anyone who didn’t know the context of this scene, would likely think they were bearing witness to a phenomenon of group hysteria.

Before the revelry was dialled up to full power, an instruction from Mayor John Biggs was made for the five Conservative councillors to sit at the front bench, a place previously held by the largest opposition, the Independent Group (THF).

This public display of alliance between Labour and Conservatives continued as the nominations came in for the chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee. Cllr John Pierce, from Labour, and Oliur Rahman, from the Independent Group, were the nominees. The hired in help from the public gallery – the ex-Labour councillors and failed Labour candidates – turned what should have been a democratic process into a farcical spectacle. Bringing a new definition to the term political football, they cheered on their team who made disparaging remarks of Cllr Oliur Rahman, an all-in-all uncivilised performance. Cllr Oliur Rahman made a case for himself as a member of the leading opposition, to chair the OSC, acknowledging the conflict of interest that would be imposed on Cllr John Pierce. Or at least he tried to, over the cries from the public gallery and also from councillors in the chamber. The votes ruled in favour of the Labour councillor, following a crowd pleasing speech by honorary Labour pet, Cllr Peter Golds.

Mayor John Biggs tried to distance himself from the behaviours, meekly saying at one point that the council ought to “find a way to work as a council”, apparently incapable of condemning his agents’s disregard to the democratic process.

Meanwhile, away from the giddy cries of the Labour group, figures released by the Department of Communities and Local Government, indicate that Tower Hamlets created more affordable homes since 2010 than anywhere else in the country. A write up in the Wharf said: “In spring, the council secured £24.8million from the Government’s New Homes Bonus.” Whatever the reasons are for not mentioning that the success of this is down to the Independent Group and more specifically, Cllr Rabina Khan – taking a quote from a four-day-old mayor is simply at odds with reality.

In the election court, Lutfur Rahman was ladened with the responsibility of the actions from his supporters, no matter how tenuous his relationship with them. Perhaps the same standards should also apply to Mayor John Biggs, to bear the responsibility of the actions and behaviours from his councillors and invited public.

What is open and transparent is that Mayor John Biggs is leaving scrutiny to his Labour councillor and an impotent Conservative front bench, whilst his agents single-mindedly obstruct the opposition.