THIS MAYOR MEANS BUSINESS. So much was clear from the second Cabinet meeting of Directly Elected Mayor Lutfur Rahman’s third Administration.
Throughout the meeting, Mayor Rahman and the Aspire Cabinet made reference after reference to what support the residents of Tower Hamlets need during these troubled times – and to the services and high standards which the said residents deserve.
A range of policy decisions were taken at Cabinet, but it was perhaps in two early and routine agenda items that the new approach was flagged up – and that we saw a glimpse of what more needs to be done.
Mayor Rahman reminded the Cabinet that on 27th July the Council agreed to appoint an independent expert to look at why the Council’s financial systems had gone wrong under the previous Administration – to the point that the auditors had not yet signed off the Council’s accounts for the last six years. The Council had also agreed to investigate failings in the Youth Offending Service which had led to the Council receiving a negative report, published just before the Council meeting.
Mayor Rahman then referred to the Strategic Plan (the main strategy document that sets out what the Council is going to do in the year ahead) from last year. Mayor Rahman expressed surprise that last year’s Strategic Plan had, by the end of the year, achieved only 24 out of its 51 measurable targets. He spat out the information with restraint – but with a focus that made clear that he is expecting that his own Strategic Plan, agreed by the last Council meeting, will be implemented in full.
These three factors, grouped at the start of the Aspire Administration, made it clear to Mayor Rahman that there needed to be a full investigation into the causes of these failings – one which could also look for any further failings which were waiting to be discovered. The Council will now procure suitable consultants to do this, with the Mayor’s office overseeing the procurement process. Mayor Rahman asked the Chief Executive to produce a paper outlining the procurement process by 16th August. This was a new approach for Cabinet. The previous Administration rarely – if ever – set such business-like targets to deal with urgent matters.
Mayor Rahman then announced that he was very concerned that Tower Hamlets residents, who are finding it difficult to cope with high energy costs now, would not be able to pay their bills this autumn – given that current predictions suggest the energy cap may rise by up to 73%. He is therefore setting up a Mayor’s Energy Emergency Fund, which would initially be funded in the first instance from £827,500 government money allocated to councils for purposes such as these and which had to be spent quickly, so that it would not be clawed back. Just over £200,000 of this fund would be reserved to help pensioners. At this point, Mayor Rahman paused to draw breath.
Overview & Scrutiny Committee Report
An “Overview & Scrutiny Committee”, fondly nicknamed “O&S”, was designed when the “Leader plus Cabinet” and “Directly Elected Mayor” systems of local government were introduced. Given that both new models of local government were designed to concentrate power in the hands of the few (“streamline local government”, Tony Blair called it), someone or something had to be able to scrutinise what Council leaders were doing with this power – and bring any problems to light.
As Mayor Rahman’s announcements, made minutes earlier, about the Council’s failures over the last six years made clear, the O&S model in Tower Hamlets has been an abject failure at bringing problems to light. Whether it couldn’t find them, or whether it preferred to leave them festering in the dark, we shall never know. What we do know is that the system, as operated in Tower Hamlets, must be regarded as one of the last Administration’s failures.
At more than one O&S meeting over the last two months, officers and councillors have referred to O&S’s role as being to “add value” to the Council’s work. Of course it isn’t. Adding value is the work of the Cabinet, which O&S does not replace. We do not have dual power in Tower Hamlets.
In past years, Chairs of O&S have set work plans for the year ahead. This has contributed to the Committee’s ineffectiveness, as it restricts O&S’s work to two or three aspects of the service – leaving the other areas free to mess up over the next twelve months. The year ends with members of the Committee feeling they have had their moment in the spotlight and justified their existence – but actually unaware about how the service is performing.
At this Cabinet, the current Chair of O&S announced he had followed suit and also set an agenda for the rest of the municipal year – incorporating most of the ideas put forward by his fellow councillors. We don’t yet know whether this year’s O&S will be the cosy internal talking shop of previous years. We don’t know what it costs to run this talking shop, but if it’s more than a fiver it may be hard to justify the expense, based on past performance. Perhaps Mayor Rahman has something up his sleeve which can help provide a service worth the money and worth its while for residents.
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