Tower Hamlets Town Hall in Whitechapel. Photo credit: Rich Mix, London
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Tower Hamlets Council criticised for ‘two-council culture’ and gender imbalance

Tower Hamlets Council has been criticised for having a ‘two-council culture’ which is impacting the timeliness of decisions, a report has concluded.

In September 2023, councillors and senior leaders from other local authorities joined the Local Government Association (LGA) to carry out a corporate peer challenge, a type of in-depth review, at Tower Hamlets Council and spoke with more than 175 council staff, councillors and external stakeholders.

The review, which was published on Friday (December 15), allows the council to understand how it can improve and receive feedback on five key themes which are; local priorities and outcomes, organisational and place leadership, governance and culture, financial planning and management and capacity for improvement.

The council was praised for having a ‘comprehensive understanding’ of the needs of local residents and is well aware of the challenges the borough faces including being one of the poorest, suffering from high crime rates and being the most populated area in the country which continues to grow at a rapid rate.

The council was also strongly commended for having a group of ‘highly skilled, dedicated people’ that have together helped to deliver various election promises, including being the first local authority in the country to deliver universal free school meals for all children up to the age of 16.

However, the review noted that more work needs to be done around improving relationships with local businesses, external partners and those working in the voluntary and community sector.

The review noted: ‘The council now needs to focus on developing a comprehensive longer-term strategic vision for the borough.

‘The mayor’s manifesto, whilst clearly ambitious, focuses on some short to medium-term priorities and there now needs to be a longer-term focus for the organisation and borough which should be co-produced with partners and communities.’

Elsewhere in the review, it was mentioned more than once by those who were interviewed that Tower Hamlets has a ‘two-council culture’, which is slowing down decision-making.

The ‘two-council’ culture has been identified as ‘problematic’ and is causing a lack of trust among ‘some members and officers’, who have been encouraged in the review to communicate in a more open and collaborative way.

The review noted there was a particular lack of trust between senior officers and those working in the mayor’s office, which is reportedly causing ‘unnecessary delays’ with one service area allegedly waiting four months to receive a decision on something.

‘Not only is this inefficient but is also potentially damaging to the council’s reputation,’ the review added.

According to the review, senior leaders at the council are aware of the issue and are committed to resolving this and restoring trust.

Tower Hamlets Mayor, Lutfur Rahman was praised for being a visible figure in the community and councillors from all of the political parties (Aspire, Labour, Green, Conservative) were celebrated for being ‘strong community champions’.

However, the review did not hold back from criticising the fact that there are no females in the council’s cabinet, which is made up of all male Aspire councillors.

The review noted: ‘This is impacting on the views that women [both within and external to the council] have of the council and is something that the council should seek to address as a priority.

‘It is crucial that the council can demonstrate how the voices and lived experience of women and those from different backgrounds to those in cabinet are listened to and how their concerns are acted upon by the mayor and the cabinet.’

Mr Rahman previously said he was ’embarassed’ and ashamed that there are no female councillors in his administration.

He said during a cabinet meeting in June of this year: ‘Can I say, and I’ve said this publicly before, as an administration we have 24 men of Bangladeshi heritage – that embarrasses me.

‘I’m not ashamed to say it in public, that embarrasses me, that shames me that despite the best endeavours of our party, we did not secure one female councillor amongst us.’

On finances, the council was praised for having a ‘good record’ over the years of balancing its books and is in a good position to continue being financially stable if it continues to be robust with spending.

However, the review warned that the council will need to find savings to fund the freezing of council tax up until 2026/27 because it will ‘inevitably’ impact the council’s base budget.

The review provided a list of 18 recommendations for the council which include reviewing the roles of officers within Mr Rahman’s office and developing a long-term strategic vision for the borough which has input from local residents and businesses.

In an official statement that was published on the council’s website on Friday, Mr Rahman said: ‘This peer review shows that we are one of the most ambitious councils in the country and we are on the right track in transforming the council to be even better.

‘Change is never easy, but it is necessary to deliver the best outcomes for our residents.  This report shows we are making significant progress while also delivering for the people of Tower Hamlets.’

He added: ‘I am proud that they recognised our industry-leading schemes such as free school meals for all primary and secondary school children, and grants for college and universities.

‘There is more to come, and our residents can be confident that we will continue to improve as a council and a borough.’

Tower Hamlets CEO, Steve Halsey said the review contained ‘many positive reflections’ about the council and its staff.

Mr Halsey added: ‘It is affirming to see that the areas for improvement are issues that our new management team had identified prior to the review, and for that reason, we have a head start in tackling them.’

For more local politics, read Campaigners seek legal action over council’s LTN decision.

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