Community news and investigative journalism for Wapping E1W and Tower Hamlets London

Hyperlocal publishers to keep watch over local government

By on May 11, 2016 in Council meetings, Opinion

“Hyperlocal publishers to keep watch over local government?” A pompous headline if ever the LW editorial team wrote one. And we have written a few.  “Mr Pompous wins local Being Very Pompous competition” being one of them. Pompous the headline may be but accurate it is.

There is a school of thought that blames the historic abuses of power by the previous Mayor? of Tower Hamlets on the local press (with the exception of Trial by Jeory) for not exposing what Mr Mop Head and his chums were up to before four local residents stepped in and did the job.

Others think this cannot be true as there is no local press in Tower Hamlets.

Which as we supposedly live in ‘the Information Age’ is a bit of a paradox. Problem is there is so much background noise that it is becoming increasingly difficult for individuals to just get the information they want.

Keeping tabs (sort of)

East End Life is just about to publish its last issue which means another news outlet will be silenced.

Hyperlocal publications such as What’s in Wapping, Love Wapping and SE1 try to cover local government issues but it takes a lot of time and effort. SE1 does a very good job but LW does not and has never claimed to keep tabs on the various council meetings.

LW has rarely attended any council meetings and only two Overview & Scrutiny Committee meetings at the Town Hall. Which is not really coverage. Although LW did do a little bit of work investigating the antics of Tower Hamlets First. 

Which is all a very long winded way of saying there needs to be consistent scrutiny of our council (all councils for that matter) and LW is going to have a go at it.

No promises

LW is making no promises however

Anyway – onwards!

If you follow this link [PDF] you will find what is known as a ‘Reports Pack’ from covering the meeting of Tower Hamlets Council on 18 May 2016. If you should download it and read through all 108 pages of it you will find lots of very interesting stuff. Some of which may affect you.

How many residents will do that? Not many. PDF documents, once hailed as the saviour of desktop computing, have now become annoying black boxes where council officers dump information thinking that in doing so they are being ‘transparent’. The ‘Reports Pack” for the recent council meeting is an example of this.

So LW has downloaded the PDF and picked a few highlights to wet your appetite and maybe motivate you to download and have a look at the document itself.

If you don’t do that then you will never find out:

  • Who or what Mayor Biggs was referring to when he said: “In the end we realised that there was a bit of laundering going on if you like… “
  • Why the Mayor praised Poplar HARCA then said “That in no way in my view excuses what they have done. I think their behaviour has been clumsy and it has been excessive.”
  • What the deal is with Ayasofia Primary school.
  • Or what is going on with  Glenkerry Co-Operative Housing Association.
  • Or the concerns of Emma Adams regarding her son and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.

Go on! You know you love a good PDF download!

The extracts below are mainly relating to residents asking questions directly of the Mayor or relevant councillor and are chosen at random.

TO RECEIVE PETITIONS (Page 8)

5.1 Petition relating to Ayasofia Primary school.

Mr Mohammed Umair addressed the meeting and responded to questions from Members. Councillor Rachael Saunders, Deputy Mayor and Cabinet Member for Education & Children’s Services then responded to the matters raised in the petition. She considered that the petition raised two issues. The first of which concerned the OFSTED report which it was understood the

school was challenging. In this regard, the Council had done its best to support the school going beyond its statutory duties for an independent school and were generally supportive of the school aims. The report raised serious issues and these needed to be addressed.

5.2 Petition relating to the Glenkerry Co-Operative Housing Association

Petitioners addressed the meeting and responded to questions from Members. Councillor Sirajul Islam Statutory Deputy Mayor and Cabinet Member for Housing Management & Performance then responded to the matters raised in the petition. He stated that the Administration were committed to working with the petitioners to see how it could assist the Housing Co-Operative. To this end, the Mayor’s Office would be in contact with the petitioners to commence discussions with the the Housing CoOperative to move the issues forward.

TO RECEIVE WRITTEN QUESTIONS FROM MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC

The following questions and in each case supplementary questions were put and were responded to by the Mayor or relevant Executive Member:-

6.1 Question on Poplar HARCA Parking Charges:

Mohbub Ali

Will the Mayor intervene directly to stop unjustified and extortionate increase in residential parking permit for residents by Poplar HARCA?

Ruhul Tapader

Is the Cabinet Member aware of the major increases in parking charges that Poplar HARCA has implemented – and does the cabinet member have view of these?

Response by Mayor John Biggs:

I am a disappointed as you are with the massive increase in parking charges, also in the charges for pram sheds and for garages. This evening a number of you presented this petition to me which has got a massive number of signatures on it which shows the level of disquiet on this issue. My starting point is that HARCA are generally a good Landlord. They have got a good reputation, charge relatively low rents, provide a good community service and have an ambitious programme of building new homes. They have been massively affected by the government rules saying they have to cut the rents by 1% a year over the next four years which has knocked a hole in their business plan. They have to achieve savings or increase income without being allowed to put up their rent.

That in no way in my view excuses what they have done. I think their behaviour has been clumsy and it has been excessive.

There are a number of people in the chamber and in the gallery this evening who have come to show their displeasure and the number of signatures show how unhappy people are with this issue.

I have been meeting with Steve Stride and Paul Brickell the Chief Executive and Chair of the HARCA as have my Members and we have made it quite clear to them that we think it is not good enough.

This has been very damaging to their reputation and the confidence of tenants and leaseholders as well. We have informed them that we want them to reverse these changes. They have made a proposal to us and we need to continue talking to them about that. There may be a motion on this matter on the agenda and if that is brought forward we can discuss this matter further.

Supplementary question from Mohbub Ali and Ruhul Tapader:

Poplar HARCA might be good but the fact is there has been a lack of consultation with the residents and this keeps on coming up. We would not be in this situation if they had consulted with us or consulted with the State Board who represent the residents, this is why we have to contact the Council now to try to get it reduced. Will the Mayor ask the government to allow residents of Housing Associations to ballot every 10 years to choose their Housing Association, this way they will have more accountability?

Mayor John Biggs’ response to the supplementary question:

Yes I strongly support the proposal. This is being promoted by Jim Fitzpatrick your MP in Parliament, for the Government to change the law to allow people to sack their Landlord and replace their Landlord with a new Landlord, we have several Landlords in the Borough who are annoying their tenants and their leaseholders and if this power existed it would give a better balance of power.

There is an offer at present from the HARCA which is that the car parking charges were £1.96 and they had proposed £7.00. They are now suggesting that they can reduce that to £4.00 from £7.00. I appreciate that you will be unhappy with that but I have a duty to share that information with you.

6.3 Question from Jamir Chowdhury:

Is it wise to spend £100k for Head of Mayor’s office, £25k for personal publicity and £60k for new vanity manager in his office – on top of £100k for Head of Marketing while the Mayor cuts vital services and whacks up Council Tax by record 4%?

Response by Mayor John Biggs:

I am very pleased you asked this question because it is a question that the opposition members quite like asking as well.

I am pleased to say that we have made a saving of over £300,000 on the cost of the Mayor’s office from the previous Mayor. The suggestion that we spend £100,000 on the cost of the Head of the Mayor’s office – he does not get anything like that sum of

money. We will continue to look at the costs, my office gets about 2000 emails a week and we need to have staff to respond to those, we need to have people to liaise with the policy section of the Council to make sure that we are carrying out things like the HARCA.

In answer to the question we need to make sure we have a properly staffed office in order to serve you effectively. I will make sure that we do not have staff in that office who are not doing any work. If I find any I will sling them out immediately.

Supplementary question from Jamir Chowdhury:

In the past Mayor Biggs criticised such spending as unnecessary. How is this different when he is spending £605k on his personal office in addition to £25,000 on personal publicity? Is this not hypocrisy? Why are those who opposed it silent now? Is it because the Mayor got into power due to Tory votes as publicised by a local blogger?

Mayor John Biggs’ response to the supplementary question:

I am very happy to respond to that, the difference is that first of all I promised and I agreed and I am to be very transparent as Mayor and to be open about how my office is funded. I am willing to share that information and publish it. Councillor John Pierce (who is sitting between you and me), chairs the

Overview and Scrutiny Committee and has produced a scrutiny report on transparency. I will make sure that this information is published.

Secondly, an example of lack of transparency is that the previous Mayor had about half a dozen staff in his office who he pretended were not in there. He had them funded by parts of the Council and that cost about £200,000. When I came in I could not understand who these people were or why they disappeared, how they were funded or where the money had gone. In the end we realised that there was a bit of laundering going on if you like, which allowed people to be employed in one place whilst they pretended that they were not working in the Mayor’s office.

I am transparent and happy to be transparent. I am happy to meet you and discuss it with you. I do not need anything in return from you.

6.5 Question from Emma Adams:

I have had a letter from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) asking if they can close my son’s CAMHS support for the time being. When he was first diagnosed with autism in 2013, when he got his diagnosis I was told he would have a CAMHS support worker until he reached 16 and then it will go over to the adult mental health services if he needed it.

I want to know:

  • How many other parents have had similar letters like mine?
  • Has there been a sudden change of policy to what support Autistic children get from CAMHS?
  • Is the proposed change to my son’s support related to the £200,000 council voted cut to CAMHS funding on 24 February?

Response from Councillor Rachael Saunders, Deputy Mayor and Cabinet Member for Education & Children’s Services:

Thank you for coming and thank you for waiting so long as well. We do not have access to all of the detailed information that you have asked for because the service is delivered by the East London Mental Health Foundation Trust. I would be really happy to work with you if you wanted to contact me directly to speak about your son’s particular service needs. I am afraid that we do not hold that information whether anyone else has been affected in the same way.

In terms of the reduction in CAHMS funding it is part of a significant change programme which is intended to make sure that the service is better at supporting the borough’s most vulnerable children, the reduction hasn’t yet been made so your son’s service is not being affected by that particular reduction because the reduction has not yet been made yet. I will be happy to speak further outside the meeting if we can give any support at all in talking to the Foundation Trust and to CAMHS about your son’s service.

Supplementary question from Emma Adams:

The CAMHS worker my son has only deals with Autistic children, she works in Phoenix School as well and she deals with other children with developmental delays. Does that mean when these reductions get taken off, she will have more workload from other CAMHS cases?

Councillor Rachael Saunders response to the supplementary question:

We work in partnership with the Foundation Trust to try and improve the CAHMS service so I am not personally responsible for the delivery of the service because it is a contractual issue with the Foundation Trust. I would suggest that if you wanted to work with me we could talk to them together and get some detailed answers. I am really sorry I am not able to give you that information right now.

All interesting stuff. Each of the issues above deserves a news story of its own. But LW has neither the funding or resourcing to do that so you really will have to download the PDF to find out the details.

Sorry!


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