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Interview: Tower Hamlets recovering but challenges remain

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When John Biggs (Lab) was elected mayor of Tower Hamlets LBC, he admits to being disappointed the commissioners sent in as part of government’s high profile intervention “didn’t disappear the next day”.

At the time, the council was still reeling from a toxic era of political chaos and corporate dysfunction leftover from the mayoralty of Lutfur Rahman (Tower Hamlets First), who was removed from political office after a High Court ruling found him “personally guilty and guilty by his agents” of corrupt practices in relation to his election in May 2014.

Despite the high-profile problems in Tower Hamlets, Mr Biggs admits he was caught by surprise by the scale of the challenges he faced on taking office in June 2015 and said he soon learned to appreciate the support of commissioners in addressing engrained issues across the council.

He said: “They were a help in terms of their patience in getting processes lined up.

“The council proved to be in need of complete refurbishment under the surface – the usual checks and balances were just not in place.”

Mr Biggs said he was faced with a “devolved management style and a weak corporate core” and a degree of resistance in some quarters to attempts to change the council’s culture.

“I was quite surprised that one would pull a lever and there was a bit of back swing attached to it,” he said.

The widespread problems in the council were first brought to wider attention by a government-commissioned PwC report in 2014, which prompted then communities secretary Eric Pickles to intervene.

The report said the weak governance that failed to prevent the council from complying with its best value duty was due, in part, to the statutory roles of the head of paid service, the section 151 officer and monitoring officer all being filled on a temporary basis by a variety of individuals.

Furthermore, PwC found the council’s response to problems highlighted suggested “a tendency towards denial or obfuscation”.

Mr Biggs said the recruitment of permanent senior officials, including chief executive Will Tuckley, was pivotal to beginning to reverse the damage caused by the previous administration as it created a positive “forum” between beleaguered staff and elected members.

He said: “Within the workforce there was an immense sense of relief, but conversely there was a lot of work to do and difficult decisions to make.

“But it was also about making sure that there was a strong signal about good behaviour and transparency.”

The approach appears to be paying off, with communities secretary Sajid Javid last month recognising “significant improvements” at the council.

This led to Mr Javid agreeing to hand back powers over the awarding of grants and procurement – two of the council’s functions highlighted as being tainted by a “culture of cronyism”.

While Mr Biggs welcomed the government’s “vote of confidence” in progress being made, he said serious challenges remain.

He continues to challenge the Metropolitan Police’s decision not to interview witnesses over allegations of election fraud during the 2014 election.

He recently told a meeting of the Greater London Authority that 17 of the 19 people elected while standing for Mr Rahman’s now-defunct Tower Hamlets First party were still serving on the council.

Despite ongoing work to repair damage left by the previous administration, the mayor insisted he is focused on addressing the causes of the long-term economic and health inequalities in the borough, which are among the worst in the country.

Mr Biggs also said the fact that children were growing up attending mixed schools, with improved attainment amongst those from the Bangladeshi and Somali communities, was improving social cohesion.  

While the council is facing a budget shortfall of £58m over three years, relatively high levels of new homes bonus due to the prevalence of large developments in the borough and increasing council tax and business rates revenue has afforded the council some flexibility.

Tower Hamlets is among the few councils that has maintained 100% council tax support for those most in need, albeit just for one year, while the borough’s libraries and leisure centres remain open.

Mr Biggs said the biggest savings would be made in the “back office” and by “consolidating support functions”.

He admitted, however, that a plan to amalgamate children’s centres and early years provision could prove controversial and said the council has become one of the last local authorities to introduce charges for home care.

Despite developments in the borough, there are currently 2,000 families living in temporary accommodation with a housing waiting list of up to 10 years, said Mr Biggs.

He said people who were not in priority housing need were being priced out of Tower Hamlets and said the government’s housing policies were hindering attempts to “drive through” beneficial deals with developers.

Mr Biggs added: “I can’t directly counter [government housing policy] but I would challenge the government’s definition of affordability at 80% of market rent. Affordable rents should be close to council rents.”

Mr Biggs said improving training and employment through the council working more closely with businesses and exploiting commercial opportunities were key to driving up living standards in the longer term.

He said: “In Tower Hamlets there was a much more ‘municipalist’ culture and the key is for the council to be much more ‘enabling’.

“Because of budget pressures we have to move in that direction – historically there has been a dependency culture.

“We need to change the perspective. The borough has been inward looking and had become balkanised between communities and geographical areas - we need to be more outward looking.”

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