There will be few councils where a steep decline in media coverage is deemed a mark of success.
However, Tower Hamlets is an exception. If two hotly contested mayoral elections, an election court that saw the sitting mayor barred from office and the imposition of commissioners were not enough, we’ve had to contend with the tensions over a Jack the Ripper Museum (originally envisaged as a history of women in the East End) and the advent of the Cereal Killer café, where the fashionable consume pricey bowls of the hundreds of cereals on offer. Tower Hamlets is certainly interesting and lively, but not always for the right reasons.
One of the things I’ve discovered since arriving in October is that the notoriety and coverage has often masked genuine invention and trailblazing work. Our Find It, Fix It, Love It app, which allows residents to report any issues with the public realm, was shortlisted in two categories in this year’s LGC awards. Also shortlisted is our work on assisted technology and since 2012, we have installed over 1,100 systems, which has enabled older and disabled residents to regain mobility and retain independence. Yet, such examples have generally been drowned out by a popular perception of Tower Hamlets as a circus.
Despite the election of a new mayor, appointment of a chief executive (me) and attraction of some new highly experienced directors, such impressions remain. This is debilitating because it actively hinders recovery and rising morale within the organisation, not to mention the ending of intervention. Consequently we have taken the view that the ideal way of changing the external perception of the borough is to actively challenge the stereotype. Perhaps the best example concerns transparency. The view among many outside the organisation, including much in the rich local blogosphere, was that past political tension led to a climate where openness was far from evident. What better way, then, to show that things have changed, than to champion a new approach?
In taking such a stance it is helpful to have a directly elected mayor who has spent most of his recent political history in opposition on the London Assembly and chaired the committee that scrutinised Boris’s budgets. Since his election the mayor has been a regular attender at overview and scrutiny committee meetings. At council meetings he provides a written report, answers questions and grants each opposition leader time to reply. Moreover this pluralism has been evident not just in the chamber but also on the pages of the council’s publication, East End Life. In a new development, recent weeks have seen columns by the opposition leaders alternate with that from the mayor.
The mayor’s transparency protocol has now been joined by overview and scrutiny’s own transparency commission. Prepared with evidence from local people, this sets challenging targets for the whole organisation. For officers, this no longer just represents a return to more normal political discourse, but has taken on the aura of more widespread cultural change. So far this is working; there have been few if any confidential committee papers. A new whistle-blowing procedure has been launched. More far-reaching and complex tasks await, such as the wholesale publication of big data.
The cross-party member/officer governance working party has now endorsed an expansion of overview and scrutiny. Radically for Tower Hamlets, and long championed by the commissioners, a subgroup will take on the task of reviewing all grant applications. Housing, a critical issue for a borough with more than 2,000 families in temporary accommodation, 7,000 overcrowded households, and one of the biggest housing programmes and greatest affordability challenges in the country, is likely to be the subject of a new scrutiny committee.
Two key issues remain to be solved. Firstly, openness and transparency may be inherently good, but Tower Hamlets, like the rest of local government, has fewer resources. Our new approach must add value, and reduce demand. Seeing fewer adverse headlines is a good start, but the real prospect of engaging local organisations, residents and businesses using the council’s information to produce better solutions to local issues is enticing.
Secondly, work remains to ensure the legacy from the past is overcome. When contentious issues - grants, property sales, even TV documentaries - have become embedded in past political conflict, it is difficult to leave these behind even when some of the objective conditions that made these such symbolic issues have gone. It takes magnanimous politicians and courageous officers to decide that a line should be drawn under numerous enquiries and investigations. While a truth and reconciliation process may not be required, it is faith in a strong and positive vision for the future of the borough that will take us forward.
Will Tuckley, chief executive, Tower Hamlets LBC