"I’m afraid you can’t speak to the mayor, he’s in a meeting.”
Waiting for mayor John Biggs at Tower Hamlets Town Hall, I overhear one side of a phone conversation.
A resident has been without water and heating for five days. He wants to speak to the borough’s top man. Someone who can get things done.
The assistant promises to pursue the matter with his housing association. She will get back to him but, no, the mayor himself is busy.
“We’re in the bad news business,” said Mr Biggs, later on, meaning that people, like that resident, only seem to connect with the council when there’s a problem.
These dull but essential issues – vital for a man without water, inessential to a mayor on the make – were the undoing of the previous incumbent.
Lutfur Rahman would scuttle round the borough looking for slender political advantages not plumbing problems to solve.
Playing politics is an easy displacement activity in the face of the challenges that greeted the Labour victor last June. Good job then, that John Biggs wears his politics lightly. He talks of his days in dusty church halls as an “old leftie” putting the world to rights but, in truth, he’s more on the pragmatic wing of the party – the “whatever works” brigade.
Indeed, during our conversation he seems more comfortable discussing the efficient functioning of the council rather than “the vision thing” (in President George HW Bush’s memorable phrase).
More PowerPoint than power play.
Since June, Mr Biggs, 58, has eschewed Mr Rahman’s imperial suite in favour of a smaller office with a panoramic view over Robin Hood Gardens.
He has instilled in his staff the notion of a professional place of work, not a part-time playground for the politically ambitious. He has reached out to the community via an array of consultations on everything from overfull bins to the Local Plan and he has proposed a tough 3.99% increase in council tax, all without bitterness of the previous regime.
Tower Hamlets may not be as entertaining for the likes of us, the journalists, but it is beginning to work again, look outwards and engage with the whole population and the wider capital.
To give a spine to our conversation, I return to a piece I wrote on his election back in June – which outlined priorities that should be on mayor John Biggs’ to-do list – and I start with the commissioners, imposed by the Secretary of State to bring some order and transparency to the Rahman shambles.
1 Get rid of the commissioners
Mr Biggs said: “The Commissioners are here for a reason and we need to get rid of the reasons why they are here. We’re working our way through them.
“Two or three have gone already – things like appointing senior staff and getting an election plan. Property and procurement are pretty technical and we’re almost finished with them. The other three are the trickier ones.”
He also lists measures required to change the culture of the council then moves on to the hot topic of the distribution of grants, the subject that did for Mr Rahman. His personal intervention to award his supporters ended in his dismissal as mayor.
Mr Biggs says: “What we need is to have a more open and transparent and less patronage based approach to grant making.
“If we’re giving money it should have some value to the community, it can’t just be a bung to people. We need to have a rules-based approach that can be challenged.”
And then council publication East End Life – Mr Rahman’s propaganda rag, the “Town Hall Pravda”, the lightning conductor for all that was wrong with the previous regime.
“I was happy to get rid of East End Life by mid-March but that’s been extended to mid-May, although it’s gone fortnightly,” says Mr Biggs.
“The reason for that is we need to get our alternative in place. There is a mythology that we can get rid of it and save £1.5million but we will still have to publish information about road closures and other things.
“We have a duty to care to the community to put out messages that will keep the community together. So there are still publication needs.”
He says of the commissioners: “I want them to go as soon as possible. I value the advice they have given us but I get a bit grumpy with them when, in my opinion, they overreach themselves. But they have a job to do and they need to get on with it.
“I believe I’m doing everything I can do to help them reach the point where they can tell the Secretary of State they can go.”
2 Get the books in order
I suggest to Mr Biggs that the multi-million-pound savings are the issue most likely to keep him awake at night.
He sleeps well he tells me and begins to reel off some internal processes that could create some efficiencies, including better IT, but I point out that, surely, there’s not enough wastage in the Town Hall to meet the £60million savings required. Someone’s “frontline services” will take a hit.
He concedes the point and says: “This year we’ve made £17million of savings in our proposed budget and that’s been relatively low-hanging fruit.
“Next year we need to find another £30million so there will be some painful decisions. We are probably going to have to start charging for home care – we’re only one of two authorities that don’t do that now. Chancellor George Osborne has asked us to put up our council tax by 2% a year to help pay for adult social care and we need to fund those things – they’re not negotiable.”
He cites a couple of no-go areas for cuts – libraries, education – but says the grant-giving budget may come under pressure and the youth service, the second largest in the country, may have to become smaller.
He says: “The way I’m looking at the future of the council is that, in simple terms, we want to do two kinds of things.
“One is, we need to support people who particularly need help, vulnerable people, older people, people with mental health problems – and the second is we need to have good quality basic services for everyone, whether it’s keeping the streets clean or tackling anti-social behaviour.
“When you do that it may mean there are things you can do less of.”
Do you fret about all this? I ask.
“I don’t like the idea of charging for home care, but if we can encourage people to take up their allowances and we have strong support from the voluntary sector and we have budgets to tackle the problems of, say, loneliness, which is really pernicious, then I think we will still be a humane authority.”
3 Get planning under control
In the days of Mayor Lutfur Rahman, the Isle of Dogs was the cash cow that funded the social programmes for his core vote.
The monument to his indulgence will be the skyline of South Quay where towers are vying with each other to pack in more people and break more records.
Even keen builder Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, referred to a “free-for-all” in this stretch of east London.
Mr Biggs concedes that “this is a very stressful issue, especially on the Isle of Dogs” and he indicates a tougher stance on development and broader strategic restraint.
He says: “We recognise we need to play our part in providing housing but I know there has been a kickback, particularly on the Isle of Dogs about density.
“We’re reviewing our Local Plan but when you’re close to a very good transport hub like Canary Wharf you probably can get some denser developments there, it makes sense.
“But you have to make sure the services are there too and you need to resist the temptation for developers to stick a few more floors on their buildings.
“What I’m saying to the rest of London including Boris Johnson is that we can provide some more housing in the East End but the days of easy pickings and windfalls are nearing an end and they need to look at other parts of London to take the strain.
“There are some parts of outer London where there is very little housing and they need to get a move on.
“Unaffordability is a big problem. People are being driven out by the rent levels. In human terms it means families are dislocated and it means workers – especially low-paid workers that create a sustainable city – may have longer journeys than we should expect them to have.
“You could say that’s the way the market works but I do get annoyed about the term ‘affordability’ because the Government has effectively defined that in a way that creates unaffordable ‘affordable housing’.
“Because of the benefit changes, we’re now in a position where people who live in affordable homes who you would think would be covered by housing benefit are not because the rents are too high.
“Local couples looking to buy a home are increasingly forced to look in outer London. The borough will change demographically.”
4 Look outwards for the purposes of economic regeneration
Mr Biggs says: “We got a lot done under the old Labour councils in the East End but there was always a debate between the begging bowl approach – with those saying we’re not getting enough, there’s so much poverty we need help – and the can-do approach.
“The reality of a community is that people want to get on with their lives and we need to help them to do that. That’s not an ideological message, that’s just what pragmatically works.
“This is, I suspect, one of the most entrepreneurial places in the UK. You hear about the social problems but people don’t come here from half way round the world not to achieve.
“Communities are very self-supporting but there are blockages. We need to reduce the number of kids in Poplar High Street who see Canary Wharf and think it might as well be the surface of Mars.
“What’s important is that we have schools and employers that look inwards to their communities to provide the fuel to help them grow.”
Then Mr Biggs returns to a theme that would please the man on the phone wanting his water to flow – the efficient management of council services as the foundation for a sustainable community. The devil is in the detail, where Mr Biggs appears most comfortable.
“Don’t forget there are some people in the East End for whom life is very, very tough and I have to offer something to them too,” he says.
“The street needs to be clean and we need to move towards zero tolerance of anti social behaviour. Raising those standards is a win-win.
“It will give people greater self confidence, it will give greater sense of control and safety and it will save us money if people are reinforcing good quality of life.
“Of course, it might take five or six terms to achieve...”