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John Biggs addresses the Summit.
John Biggs addresses the Summit.

Biggs hosts festival of wishful thinking

IT WAS FOUR HOURS OF talking, vision and passion – and no discussion of how to keep basic services going under the Tory Government’s austerity regime. That was the “partnership summit” last week.

The event brought the public, private and third sectors together, the Council announced – involving “business leaders, emergency services, voluntary and community sector representatives, faith groups and the borough’s educational organisations.”

There were over 200 people at the meeting, representing 160 organisations – and in the upmarket setting of The Atrium in Shoreditch they agreed to devise a Five Year Plan to make Tower Hamlets “a better place for everyone to live, work and visit”.

The vision which the organisations share is:
build strong, resilient and safe communities;
improve health and wellbeing;
increase and improve jobs and employment opportunities;
increase young people’s aspiration, education and skills.

The Council said that the partners present spoke about their passion for the borough, the proud history of people moving to Tower Hamlets to improve their lives and how communities getting on well with one another.

Opposition councillors suggested that the Summit could have been much more powerful if it had taken a leaf out of the NHS’s book and shouted from the rooftops about government underfunding and the crisis public services are in – which won’t be solved by contracting out, not even to the third sector.

In some settings, John Biggs acknowledges the huge scale of government cuts makes life very difficult for the Council – but in other settings he draws back and seems to be trying to deliver “business as usual”.

What is likely to move the Government more? Organisations being honest about the effects of having their funding cut by 25%, 30% or even 50% – or organisations stiffening their upper lips and getting the chaps to rally round and promote themselves as good managers, whatever the regime?

The four elements of the common vision (above) are all well and good (and nothing new), but when you look at the government cuts which the Council is delivering, the paper aspirations become patronising rather than passionate.

Build strong, resilient and safe communities
How can you do this when government policy keeps around 20,000 on the Council’s housing waiting list, while homeless families are shipped out of the borough because it’s cheaper for the Council? Implementing that policy doesn’t strengthen communities, it shatters them.

Improve Health and Wellbeing
Again, government funding of public health has been severely reduced and the Council has had to cut back the overall service. It now includes small items of innovation that are welcome – but these do not make up for cut backs in day to day services.

Increase and improve jobs and employment opportunities
Is the Council going to play its part in maintaining local employment? Is it going to introduce a “no redundancies” policy, a policy of not cutting jobs or not outsourcing them when it make its budget? If it is, that could have been the headline – “we lead the way”. If it isn’t, where are the jobs actually going to come from? From Council services contracted out to the third sector?  From the private sector which is losing jobs through improvements in technology and automation – and Brexit?

Increase young people’s aspirations, education and skills
There have been people trying to do this in Tower Hamlets for at least 30 years – you would have thought they would have made some headway by now. What do we want young people to aspire to? “Get a job and then you, too, will be able to become a private renter spending half your income on a tiny bedsit?

While the abstract discussion goes on, real people who live in Tower Hamlets are dealing, day to day, with cuts in Council services. Two hundred people came together? For four hours? That’s an investment of 800 hours in improving our borough.

Most of them there because of their paid work. Let’s say their average hourly pay is £25. That’s £20,000 worth of staff time invested in this one event. What do we have to show for it?

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