John Biggs is a seasoned hand at facing political rivals and press alike. He led Tower Hamlets Council during the 1990s and went on to torment London mayor Boris Johnson at the London assembly.
In the headquarters of the party in Tower Hamlets, Labour’s candidate for mayor explains his vision of “one East End”.
“What we’re talking about is if we are going to run the council as we aspire to do, we need to build high quality services which are sensitive to the needs and aspirations of more people.”
He says that crime and antisocial behaviour is one of the key themes he is pushing through his campaign: “It’s something that is experienced in different ways by all people in the borough. From the little old ladies that are scared to go out in the night to the young people who are forever being arrested by the police because they look ‘dodgy’ in some way. ‘One East End’ is about those different tensions and how we avoid being pulled apart.”
Is his answer the familiar “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” mantra touted by the New Labour administration? It could be said that there are similarities, but Biggs prefers to talk about the way in which we treat each other as residents.
“We can have one strategy, which of course looks at different sensitivities in different places, but is about people finding common purpose in finding a safe place that is intolerant to bad behaviour,” he says. “People should expect good behaviour from each other, and this very much comes across on the doorstep.”
It’s noticeable that Biggs continually refers to the unity that he will encourage if he is elected, which runs in opposition, perhaps, to the division which some in the borough see as propagated by ex-Labour candidate mayor Luftur Rahman.
He says that the current administration are seen by many in the borough as being divisive, but doesn’t think they’re ultimately as divisive as the portrait their “extreme detractors” would paint.
He says “They are at risk of pushing into what you might call a core vote strategy, because they are very centred on the Bengali community, whether they like it or not. I don’t like it either, I’d rather have opponents who I’m winning against on arguments and not on divisive politics.”
Biggs talks of the dramatic changes in the borough over recent years, which he says will continue. These are not changes that should be blamed primarily on immigration, or at least not in the way his UKIP opponent Nicholas McQueen portrays.
“The fact is that East London is always going through change. It’s going through a very dramatic change at present, with land values, housing development and job creation – and if we’re not careful we’re at risk of being pulled apart. The obvious separators are ethnicity, language and culture, wealth and housing tenure, employment versus unemployment.”
Rather than looking to blame one another, he sets his sights on the root causes of these tensions as his target: “One East End is about having a leadership which understands those pressures and which doesn’t divide us.”
UKIP’s McQueen recently advocated the decriminalisation of heroine as part his agenda for changing the borough.
This doesn’t sit well with Biggs. “He’s completely and utterly wrong. I think it’s bonkers.”
Biggs sees drugs as destructive at every level of society, mentioning the lifestyle choice for high flying “billionaire rockstars” as a “fantasy” too: “It’s not true when you look at the destructive impact they have on certain media characters.”
“To think that ordinary people in East London are not going to be prayed upon by drugs networks is foolish, and this isn’t to say they’re stupid,” he said.
He sees gambling and alcohol as two other areas that can have a real impact on the lives of local residents: “I enjoy alcohol from time to time, and it can be a very enjoyable thing recreationally but it is also very destructive in terms of anti social behaviour and domestic violence issues.”
Last week he joined Boris Johnson to open a community land trust, which is an attempt to provide more affordable housing in the borough. Biggs sees the housing needs of Tower Hamlets as central to his vision.
“How do you have ‘one East End’ on housing in a borough where there’s massive wealth alongside big housing needs?” he questions. “On the face of it I guess you can’t – without intervening to try to mitigate the impact of the market.”
He argues that if the housing market is left to its own devices, then prices will rise and the “less powerful” will be driven out: “Adding insult to injury, there are landlords who will choose not to have benefit recipients, even though they might be able to afford their rent, just because they find it administratively inconvenient. There’s a whole range of pressures.”
“What we have is a very stark problem. If you are a homeless family, and you qualify as being in priority need because of your local connection or have dependent children, then you’ll be rehoused eventually. If you’re not in priority need because you’re an able bodied person, who doesn’t have kids then you have to fight for yourself in the market.”
To those who think that this is the reality of a modern market economy, Biggs suggests they look at the reality of living in the capital: “The range of incomes in London is so broad, and the affordability of housing in Tower Hamlets is becoming less and less open to people on lower incomes. We are, without intervention, going to squeeze people out of the borough.”