Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs has re-stated his mission to clean up the council in the wake of the Lutfur Rahman scandal – but so deep-rooted was the infection it is taking time.
In his first “state of the borough” speech, at the annual meeting, he said he was still troubled by some councillors in denial about the “shameful” Rahman years and the “culture of politial corruption”.
So deep-rooted had this cronyism run that the whole organisation was affected and he was, in tandem with the new chief executive, having to re-build the council.
Mr Biggs told councillors: “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 and reassert our mission of service to those who elected us.
“I do not want to live in the past but we must learn from what happened. Focusing on this priority still absorbs a lot of my time.
“The previous mayor acted outrageously and 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 but rather who still seem to believe that they were victims, is something that continues to trouble me.
“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.”
He expressed frustration that the commissioners were still in place overseeing many of the council operations but he did pay tribute to their work which “has helped me understand the underlying problems of our council in far greater detail”.
Mayor Biggs outlined three main challenges he faced in the year ahead.
He said he had been slowly rebuilding an effective management team under the new chief executive Will Tuckley and was looking to improve scrutiny of councillors’ work.
Mayor Biggs said that Mr Rahman had “kicked the can down the road” and failed to come to terms with the significant budget cuts.
He said: “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.
Mayor Biggs said that cohesion was tested by the greater divisions of rich and poor in the borough accentuated by the growth in expensive development.
He said: “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?”
He announced 1,000 new council homes would be built over the next four years and he said: “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.”
He concluded: “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.”