Local news for Wapping E1W and Tower Hamlets

Quiet, bald fellow gives ‘State of the Borough’ speech.

By on May 19, 2016 in Tower Hamlets council

Mayor John Biggs gave a ‘State of the Borough’ speech at a Council meeting at the town hall last which is reproduced below.  This is a party political statement which is why you can find the original on the Tower Hamlets Labour site but LW thought it worth reproducing here as the last 12 months in the Borough have been a little odd.

Come to think of it the last six years in Tower Hamlets have been a little odd.

The speech is worth reading carefully as there are some interesting comments which may be of greater significance in the coming weeks. Below are four extracts and the full text is below.

Previous Mayor was a crook – get over it THF!

… the previous Mayor acted outrageously and he broke the law. His actions, and those of his colleagues, were shameful and we must all recognise that. Indeed, the fact that there are still members in this chamber who have yet to openly accept that things were wrong, including in the manner of their elections, but rather who still seem to believe that they were victims, is something that continues to trouble me.

Electoral Petitioners thanked

…there is never any situation in which it is acceptable that the allocation of resources is in any way connected to an expectation of electoral reward. Again, let us be clear, that too is corrupt…. And so we should thank the petitioners, and the others who stood up, gave evidence, did not buckle under pressure, and helped to end that period. And that includes several members in this chamber.

Unmet challenges of Youth Service

…As my Cabinet and new senior managers have developed their understanding of their areas of responsibility a number of unmet challenges have emerged, in the youth service for example, or in the hollowing out of our street cleansing service…. 

… Despite the youth service being well funded, it has let down many of our young people. So we have started a review including an interim plan to tackle it’s worst failings. This will be further developed in the coming year to end the crisis we found it in.

Youth Services gets a couple of mentions. Unmet challenges? Worst failings? Sounds interesting. Or maybe not.

LW Comment

Bottom line is that the previous bunch of corrupt idiots who used to be in power aka the Tower Hamlets First administration trashed our lovely borough for their own ends and it is going to take a very long time to fix it.

The full extent of the damage they caused has yet to be revealed. But it will be.

Everyone suffers because of their actions, but the poor and those most in need will suffer most. That is Tower Hamlets First legacy.

Full text of Mayor John Biggs ‘State of the Borough’ speech

“There is much for us to be proud of and excited about in Tower Hamlets. Ours is the most exciting place in the UK, and as if that was not enough, we are a part of the world’s greatest city. Our residents tell us again and again how they value the diversity, the buzz, and the opportunities in our borough and its many different places and communities. Our historic role as a place where for generations people have arrived modestly and achieved their dreams. That sense of possibility is one of its greatest strengths.

As Elected representatives, we of necessity focus on the trickier problems, and I will mention some later, but we should never forget the rich opportunities we enjoy and the enormous privilege we have to be here.

This is my, and the Council’s, first State of The Borough debate.

I want to speak about four things – the past year, the challenges we face, our achievements so far and where we need to be. The past is the most painful but we must learn from it.

It is approaching thirty years since I first rose to speak in the Tower Hamlets Council chamber. I am immensely proud to have been elected Mayor. And while it is good to be back, the circumstances were not ones I either expected or would have chosen. I would rather that the events that led to the disqualification of my predecessor had not happened. But I did not hesitate to come forward when events unfolded. It is a privilege to serve.

That we found ourselves a year ago as a council in crisis because members had acted improperly is shameful. My role as Mayor is to provide leadership to the borough, including to encourage good behaviour and reassert our mission of service to those who elected us. I am doing this and will continue to do this. I do not want to live in the past but we must learn from what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Focusing on this priority still absorbs a lot of my time.

The Commissioners continue to oversee us. I am frustrated that they have not gone, because they are here at a cost, both financial and of time. However, their presence has helped me understand the underlying problems of our Council in far greater detail, and this would not have happened in such a comprehensive manner without them. So while I am aware of the work we need to complete, and I am impatient for them to go, I am grateful that they have been here.

What have I learnt?

When I was elected this was a Council in chaos. I think most staff and most residents, were wondering when the controversy would end, and were relieved when the headlines stopped, and this quiet, bald fellow stepped in.

When I turned out not to be the parody I had been painted as, there was widespread relief. But you cannot get into the mess we were in and suddenly reverse it. It has been, and will be for a while longer, a hard job to get the Council back to where it should be, outward looking, focused on excellence, and on serving local people.

I will do it again but may I pay tribute to the many staff who knuckled down and kept our services going, to a good standard, in spite of the politics swirling around them.

In our age a high-profile firing – in our case of our Mayor and one of his colleagues – is often presented as a solution to a problem. Government Ministers seem to do it all the time. However while this may be necessary, it is rarely a magic wand, and we must stop and reflect also on the underlying problems. To use an old expression, even if a fish rots from the head, it’s body may need some attention too.

In the case of Tower Hamlets, the previous Mayor acted outrageously and he broke the law. His actions, and those of his colleagues, were shameful and we must all recognise that. Indeed, the fact that there are still members in this chamber who have yet to openly accept that things were wrong, including in the manner of their elections, but rather who still seem to believe that they were victims, is something that continues to trouble me.

But things went beyond the actions of one man, and his inner team. There was a failure of leadership, and of checks and balances, and this has affected the whole organisation.

There was a failure of political leadership and integrity which led to a system of patronage replacing evidence based policy, with a deeply unpleasant subtext that said anybody challenging this was opposed to ‘the community’, and even that they were racist. That is a culture of political corruption. We need to absolutely and clearly assert as a Council that proper action is based on evidence, and on decisions that are made openly, defended openly, and can be challenged openly. And we need to be clear that when powerful words like racism are abused, they are cheapened.

And to cheapen that word is to cheapen those who have truly suffered, such as Doreen Lawrence who I saw a few days ago.

Such as Altab Ali, who we remembered recently.

And when we commemorate the 80th anniversary of Cable Street later this year, we can perhaps reflect again. We must all be anti-racists, but we must not allow words to be devalued.

There is great poverty in our community, and it is particularly severely experienced by certain groups and in certain places. I will always defend the targeting of resources where needed and will do so without favour, using evidence and defending my actions. But there is no short-cut way of doing this, involving ‘local knowledge’ which overrides the facts. That is politically corrupt.

And there is never any situation in which it is acceptable that the allocation of resources is in any way connected to an expectation of electoral reward. Again, let us be clear, that too is corrupt.

And so we should thank the petitioners, and the others who stood up, gave evidence, did not buckle under pressure, and helped to end that period. And that includes several members in this chamber.

And in response to those events, we must all support, and enforce, proper behaviour and good standards. A key objective of my administration is to change the way we behave in the conduct of Council business. It is crucial that those who support a vibrant democracy unite in condemning the sort of behaviour that undermined it.

And so now to the challenges we face. There are many, but I will focus on three.

The first is about governance. The political leadership I replaced left us with a severely weakened management team. I am pleased our new Chief Executive Will Tuckley is here, together with four further new Corporate Managers, and a new chief officer at Tower Hamlets Homes.

Will is making good progress. But you cannot operate a Council for several years without a coherent senior management team, with statutory officers in acting positions, and with the political leadership having neglected basic responsibilities, such as for example, and there are many others, the delivery of Decent Homes, or the proper attention to street cleansing, without this severely damaging the capacity and reputation and self-confidence of the organisation for good governance, and delivery of services. Such neglect rots the organisation.

I don’t want to overstate the problem because many of our day-to-day services function quite well. And I want to pay tribute to the many council officers who in the midst of a council in chaos continued to deliver high quality services.

In my first year we have been slowly reassembling an effective management team. And we have been tackling a backlog of dodged decisions. This work is almost complete at the top level. Changing the way we work and reasserting good management practice across the whole organisation will take more time.

There is another part of good governance that I have had to attend to – the role of members. I have spent time making sure I have an effective Cabinet that plays its part in decision-making, and that understands and identifies priorities. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them for their hard work and sound advice.

And I have also been determined to build an effective scrutiny role for back-benchers, so can I pay tribute to the work of members on this, not just the Chair, Cllr Pierce, but also the other active members.  Including many from the opposition.

The second great challenge is our budget. With a Conservative Government determined to shrink the size of the state, and equally determined to make the deepest cuts in the poorest communities, this was always going to be tough. Most other Councils have developed a strategy to deal with the reductions required, while trying to protect services. When Tower Hamlets was a council in chaos, this did not happen. The Mayor’s team ‘kicked the can down the road’, using reserves to fund a tidal wave of voluntary redundancies that have hollowed out some services while failing to restructure and protect the integrity of others. As my Cabinet and new senior managers have developed their understanding of their areas of responsibility a number of unmet challenges have emerged, in the youth service for example, or in the hollowing out of our street cleansing service.

We will tackle those failures. Make no mistake that the next year will be a massive challenge, but we will meet it. We will be accused of making unnecessary cuts but that is lazy opposition. There is no simple way of finding £60million of savings in three years without some pain. I look forward to hearing about constructive alternatives. But there is no alternative to balancing our budget.

The positive outcome I am seeking is to agree a four year budget settlement and to consolidate the savings into a delivery plan that will focus resources on creating a bedrock of excellent services for everyone while targeting other resources on those most in need of support.

The third great challenge is community cohesion, and the severance caused by demographic change and development pressure in our borough. The effect of benefit changes, the disparity of incomes between different parts of and communities in our borough, and the ever-rising rents, could in other places be a recipe for conflict. That it is not is a tribute to our strong communities, and the forbearance of many. But too many are being forced to leave, as the borough becomes less affordable. How do we offer leadership when many who grew up here cannot afford to live here? Or when some, with good qualifications, cannot get work in a borough and city where there are many vacancies?

We are doing a number of things, including the work recently reported of my Affordability Commission, and the developing initiative to broker better employment opportunities for local people.  We are continuing to promote the Living Wage, and introduced the Ethical Care Charter for care workers. We must do what we can to support our new Labour Mayor, Sadiq Khan, to meet the challenge of building enough new homes, while respecting the need for our neighbourhoods to be liveable. This challenge is a priority that we will supply more energy and thought to in the coming years.

And so to our achievements.

We have been busy in the last year.

We have begun to rebuild our reputation, with a stronger and more positive image, and a greater self-respect.

We have started the process of ensuring we listen to residents, act on their priorities.

One of my first priorities was greater openness and transparency. It is important that to me that I am visible and  accountable.

I introduced the novel idea of a Mayor who speaks at Council meetings, and answers questions, and the presentation of a written report and a published list of meetings and engagements.

I introduced Mayoral Assemblies, the idea of being publicly accountable to residents in open meetings. I published a transparency protocol. This was followed up with further work on transparency by the Overview and Scrutiny Committee –  a committee I have attended five times since my election.

And I have convened the first Local Strategic Partnership Executive meeting in several years, with a view to strengthening our cooperation with our partners to make the borough better.

On the other hand, I scrapped the Mayor’s chauffeured car, saving the Council about £30,000 a year, and giving me the chance, with my legs and a 2 zone travelcard, to meet more local people. People are still surprised when I arrive at meetings without an entourage. I did however ask the Council this year to pay for the travelcard, through part of my pay rise. I hope that is not unreasonable.

I got rid of the army of paid mayoral advisers, saving the Council about another £300,000 a year. We need to get advice from our council staff. And elected members, not from cronies or yes men.

And finally, and maybe some will see it as the opposite of transparency, I instructed that my photograph should not appear on lampposts or building site hoardings and that the number of photos of me in East End Life be drastically reduced compared to the previous Mayor. I also instructed that opposition Councillors be given columns in (the now departed) East End Life. This will continue with its replacement.

Residents are clear about wanting me to take action on housing.

My Affordability Commission has reported and is clear about the need to build genuinely affordable homes that people can afford.

So I am pleased that we will soon confirm a programme that will deliver over 1000 additional council homes in the next few years, together with several thousand additional homes provided by registered social landlords.

We are building stronger relationships with housing providers, so that we can both support them in their successes and speak openly when residents raise concerns. Tower Hamlets Homes has a new Chief Executive, and we are looking to further improve its effectiveness, particularly in Decent Homes work and service quality. I have encouraged O&S to create a housing sub-committee to better monitor work in this vital area.

We have greater development pressure than anywhere else in the UK, and have sought to strike the right balance between supporting new homes and protecting existing communities.

  • We have begun a review of our local development plan. Growth will continue but in needs to be better managed. This will look at how you want the Borough to look over the next 20 years.
  • I have approved the creation of three new neighbourhood planning forums, which I strongly support.
  • We have begun to change our approach to high density development – not to stop it but to secure better development in places, rejecting over-development in others.
  • I have worked also on developing partnerships with neighbouring boroughs, and have used my connections going back many years to strengthen our partnerships with other parts of London, and with Westminster.

I have made residents priorities my own priorities, with action on street cleaning, crime, and air quality.

  • We have improved the operation of the street cleansing contract. This is better, but it can be better still and it highlights the serious problems with dumping by individuals and businesses, on which more attention will be given in the coming year. During the coming year we need to start the re-procurement of a waste contract, with more recycling and cleaner streets but hopefully at a reduced cost.
  • Fear of Crime remains high, and we have continued with a strong partnership with local police. This needs to focus on our different strengths and duties.
  • Anti Social Behaviour is a big issue for many local residents. We cannot solve it but we can do more. During this year I have directed extra funding to our ASB service. This will need continuing further work in the coming year.
  • I appointed Councillor David Chesterton as our Cycling champion. Cycling is both loved and hated in our borough, but ensuring a safe street environment for all – whether cyclists, pedestrians, or vulnerable road users – is a priority.
  • We have begun work on Air Quality and how we can improve the lives of local people, particularly vulnerable and frail people, by improving the Borough’s air quality. This work will continue.
  • I have attended the Health and Wellbeing Board but more importantly I have ensured my cabinet member, Councillor Amy Whitelock Gibbs, effectively leads it. We have rebuilt confidence that the Council takes this important work seriously, and we are committed to partnership to improve peoples’ health, including mental health, and to more efficiently use our joint resources.
  • I appointed a Somali Task Force which has now reported and will be developing in the coming year a programme to better serve the community which has often felt left out.

We are clear about the need to improve opportunity for young people. We have rebuilt a relationship of trust with local schools, at a time when they are buffeted by change and in need of our support. Education will continue to be a heated area, and quite rightly so but the previous policy of pretending education reforms did not exist achieved nothing for anybody. Our support of THE Education trust is a vital part of this more practical strategy.

Despite the youth service being well funded, it has let down many of our young people. So we have started a review including an interim plan to tackle it’s worst failings. This will be further developed in the coming year to end the crisis we found it in.

We have been clear about our need to support residents who aspire to better things. Getting people into work is a priority and we have begun the development of a new ‘employment offer’, to ensure local people have a better chance of maximising their skills and getting into work. We have started to work with training partners, and are developing our skills and training policy. We have continued our support of people affected by benefit changes, and are developing our plans for how we help those affected by them.

  • We have also started our work on stronger partnerships with local employers and on how we can help to nurture SMEs and business start ups. The East End must remain an entrepreneurial place, as it always has been .

I am proud of other actions too – securing the ownership of Old Flo and agreeing to bring her home to the East End.

I stopped the previous Mayor’s policy of trying to bankrupt the Rich Mix centre. Instead we have agreed a new relationship including an even greater focus on community outreach and engagement.

Reopening the Kobi Nazrul centre, and returning the Mela to the Bethnal Green area.

I am proud of the progress we are making, but clear that there is more to do.

And so, finally, as we enter a new municipal year, where do we need to be?

We need to be driven by what is important to people in our borough. That’s about excellent services, at good value. It’s about trying to make sure that our Council Tax remains the 6th lowest in London. It’s about resilience, by which I mean the ability of the Council, and where we can help them members of our community, to manage the great upheavals life can throw at us.

In the case of the Council that’s about rebuilding strength and confidence in our management, our members and our workforce. In the community, the pressures are varied but we need to improve our offer to help people towards work, when they lack and need it, to deal better with issues like ASB, to try to increase the supply of homes people can afford, to improve the quality of the environment when we can.

I think, when we look at ASB as an example, it’s also about community cohesion, which in that case involves the growth of understanding and respect between people, cultures and faiths.

And it’s also about us building a more outward looking approach to life. This includes improved partnerships with our Neighbours, employers, the GLA, the Olympic Legacy Authority, the NHS. And about emphasising the really strong message that Tower Hamlets is not an Island but a part of the greatest City in the World. If we get things right the opportunities are massive.

Wherever people come from in East London they do not come here to squabble and divide, to huddle and avoid the opportunities this great City offers. They come here to look outwards, to seize opportunity. Our duty is to help that to happen. It’s quite simple.  We need to develop a culture of excellence, and good conduct. We need to reassert the values of equality and of standing up for those in our community who need our support. And we need to be the best and restore the reality that Tower Hamlets can be a great place to live, where we, and our children, and our friends, and our neighbours, can achieve great things, and can achieve our dreams. That is the magic of East London and it is our duty to make it happen.

This will take time. And it will be tough. I am proud of what we have achieved so far but there is much more to do.

It is humbling as I travel around the Borough, to be thanked by so many people for helping to restore the Borough’s good name. But don’t worry, it hasn’t gone to my head!

Thank you.”

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